Chester Himes Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
Chester Himes began his Harlem Domestic series with the publication of For Love of Imabelle (1957), following a suggestion by his French publisher, Marcel Duhamel, to contribute to the popular Série noire. Written in less than two weeks, while he was “living in a little crummy hotel in Paris” under very strained emotional and economic circumstances, the novel, when translated and published in Paris in 1958, was awarded a French literary prize, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Rescued from economic dependency and the obscurity of exile, Himes wrote the next four volumes in the series—Il pluet des coups durs (1958; The Real Cool Killers, 1959), Couché dans le pain (1959; The Crazy Kill, 1959), Tout pour plaire (1959; The Big Gold Dream, 1960), Imbroglio negro (1960; All Shot Up, 1960)—all within the next two years. Each successive volume represents a significant expansion and development of essential aspects of Himes’s evolving artistic and ideological vision.
Inspired by two detectives Himes met in Los Angeles in the 1940’s, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are serious and, as their nicknames imply, deadly enforcers of social order and justice. Maintaining balance through a carefully organized network of spies disguised as junkies, drunks, and even nuns soliciting alms for the poor at the most unusual times and places, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are aggressive, fearless, and genuinely concerned with the community’s welfare and improvement. They wage a relentless, unorthodox, and often-personal battle against Harlem’s criminal elements. Fiercely loyal to each other, they are forced to be “tough” and mutually protective: They operate in an arena where most people consider police officers public enemies. Honest, dedicated to their profession, and motivated largely by a moral conscience—tinged with a certain amount of cynicism—they possess a code of ethics comparable (although not identical) to those of the Hammett/Chandler heroes.
Only in the first book of the series is there any implication of venality or dishonesty:They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people—gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket.
Except for this brief reference—explained perhaps by the fact that Himes had not fully developed their characters, a possibility suggested by their absence in almost the first half of the novel—all the subsequent narratives are explicit in emphasizing their honesty and integrity as detectives.
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are often brutal in their search for the guilty; this aspect of their characters, however, is directly related to the principal issues of the series and to Himes’s vision of the essence of American life: violence. In a discussion of his perception of the detective genre with the novelist John A. Williams, Himes shed some light on the reasons for the pervasive presence of often-hideous forms of physical violence in his works:It’s just plain and simple violence in narrative form, you know. ’Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do. As a matter of fact, for the simple reason that no one understands violence or experiences violence like the American civilians do. . . . American violence is public life, it’s a public way of life, it became a form, a detective story form.
Indeed, more than one critic has attacked Himes’s novels on the basis of gratuitous physical violence. When practiced by Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, however, brutal outbursts are, more often than not, justifiable: Caught between the dangers inherent in their quest for a better community and the long arm of the white institution that supposedly protects them, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are forced to be coldly effective through the only means at their disposal. Certainly their role as black representatives of the white power structure defines the very tenuous nature of their relationship to the Harlem community and accounts for most of the novels’ uncertainties and much of their suspense.
On another level, however, the excessive physical violence in Himes’s novels is related to another aspect of the author’s artistic and ideological perspectives—namely, the concern for place, real and imaginary. Harlem represents the center and circumference of the African American experience: It is the symbolic microcosm and the historical matrix of Himes’s America. Isolated, besieged by the outside world and turning inward on itself, Harlem is, on one hand, a symbol of disorder, chaos, confusion, and self-perpetuating pain and, on the other, an emblem of cultural and historical achievement. The duality and contradiction of its identity is the source of the tension that animates Himes’s plots and propels them toward...
(The entire section is 2065 words.)