By the time of Cotton Comes to Harlem, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones had well-developed personae in the detective series. They are known for their uncompromisingly harsh treatment of the criminal element in Harlem, especially those who prey on the trusting, the old, the weak, and the defenseless; the locals think of them as both saviors and madmen. Even their fellow officers believe them to be a little crazy. The novels are full of asides in which the other characters tell tales of the detectives’ exploits, both apocryphal and true. They stand between the predominantly black citizens they are sworn to protect and the often racist and uncaring white members of the police force. Their relationship with the white Lieutenant Anderson, who is their immediate supervisor, is one of mutual respect but also at times of conflict. Coffin Ed is the more volatile of the two (with his acid-scarred face, he is also the scarier looking of the two). Grave Digger is frequently required to control his partner’s more violent outbursts in the name of justice and common sense. Both detectives, however, have been repeatedly reprimanded over the course of the series for their excessive behavior.
Deke O’Malley has just been released from prison, where he has been in protective custody after having testified against various members of the local mob. Deke, however, is an unrepentant con man; after reading a biography of Marcus Garvey, he has organized a...
(The entire section is 515 words.)