(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The seventh novel in Himes’s detective series, Cotton Comes to Harlem, is generally considered the best of the set, ranking with the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Like the others in the series—and like the stories of Chandler—this follows a standard pattern. A public scene in Harlem is visited by an act of overt violence, which catalyzes the major characters to restore the status quo and reassert their control. Meanwhile, the official representatives of the law that supposedly governs the streets, black detectives Coffin Ed Jones and Grave Digger Johnson, carry on a formal investigation, which eventually explains the mystery—but only after the principal actors have already worked it out in their own way. Ultimately, Harlem proves to possess its own self-generating and self-protective powers of restoration, which reside in the spirits of the black people who live there.

The opening scene of this novel is explosive. Deke O’Hara, a politician and recent convict, is working the streets with an updated, glitzy version of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa program. He is supposedly selling shares in a colony to be established in Africa for African Americans discontented with America. Because discontent is endemic in Harlem, he has a ready market—but the profits from his scheme, theoretically invested in the company, are intended for his own pockets. Before he can capitalize on his plan, however, his movement is hijacked by a...

(The entire section is 546 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel begins at a “Back to Africa” rally sponsored by the Reverend Deke O’Malley, a recently released convict. O’Malley is running a scam on the gullible, to whom he promises free land and livestock back in Africa for one thousand dollars a family. The peace and festivity of the event is shattered when a gang of whites steals the $87,000 O’Malley has collected from the faithful and drives off in a stolen van. Unknown to everyone but the robbers, they stuff the loot into a bale of cotton that falls out of the rear of the van during their getaway at high speed through the city streets. As the police search for the robbers, who have shot one man and run over another in their flight, the robbers in turn look for the bale of cotton, which has been picked up by a rag-and-bone man and sold to a local junk dealer, neither of whom apparently realizes that it contains the money.

The novel then settles down to following Grave Digger and Coffin Ed as they pursue various leads. At first, they become sidetracked by searching for the partner of the petty crook who was accidentally run over by the speeding van. Then they try to find Deke O’Malley through his wife Iris, a tough-minded and resilient prostitute. They capture Deke only to have him sprung by his henchmen, who are now also after the stolen money they believe he has hidden. The detectives are finally drawn to the “Back to the Southland” movement organized by Colonel Calhoun, who has set up a...

(The entire section is 501 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A rally and barbecue in Harlem draws a crowd to listen to the Reverend Deke O’Malley speak about his new Back-to-Africa movement. For one thousand dollars, any family who signs up will receive transportation, tracts of land, a mule, and seed to farm in Africa, free from the racism that plagues the United States. Though one thousand dollars is a sizable investment for the poor families of Harlem, Deke and his cohorts nevertheless manage to collect eighty-seven thousand dollars, which is stacked in an armored car hired for the occasion.

During the rally, two black police detectives arrive, allegedly sent to bring Deke in to the station for questioning and to confiscate the money he has collected. Simultaneously, a meat truck drives up, apparently to replenish the rally barbecue. The back doors of the truck burst open, and masked white gunmen jump out and hijack the loot. One of Deke’s cronies, John Hill, resists and is shot dead. The gunmen roar away in the meat truck. Deke and the detectives set off in pursuit in the armored car. As the meat truck turns a corner at high speed, a bale of cotton tumbles out the back. As the chase continues, a local rag picker, Uncle Bud, discovers the bale, loads it onto his cart, and hauls it to a nearby junkyard to sell.

At the same time, two thieves, Loboy and Early Riser, are sweet-talking a woman in an attempt to steal her purse. The woman becomes aware of their ruse and smacks Early Riser, who runs into the street to avoid her wrath. He is run over by the fleeing meat truck, which then crashes. Meanwhile, two other black detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, learn of the robbery and set off to investigate. Jones and Johnson immediately suspect Deke, a known former convict, of a scam and question his girlfriend, Iris, in an attempt to locate him. Deke, in the meantime, calls home and learns that the detectives are waiting for him. Jones and Johnson are ordered to go to the meat truck crash site, and they leave a white police officer to guard Iris; she seduces the officer to escape.

Johnson and Jones...

(The entire section is 856 words.)