Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Grave Digger and Coffin Ed novels form what Himes called his “Harlem Domestic” series, which he began out of economic necessity. Himes was living in Paris, without much money and out of favor with the literary establishment in his native country. Marcel Duhamel, editor of the famous La Séries Noire of crime-fiction novels for the French publishing house of Gallimard, asked Himes if he wanted to contribute to the series. In France, crime fiction was accorded a much higher literary value than in the English-speaking world, in part because of its critical examination of contemporary social conditions. Himes admitted to Duhamel that he knew little about the detective or mystery novel, but the editor felt that the tone of Himes’s protest writing, with its hard-boiled central characters, would lend itself to the genre. Himes agreed to try to write one. His first crime novel, taken from an earlier short story of his with the working title “The Five Cornered Square,” was published in French under the title La Reine des pommes in 1957. Later, as For Love of Imabelle (1957), Fawcett World Library brought it out in English. The novel won the prestigious French Grand prix de la littérature policiere and was later made into a Hollywood film directed by the distinguished African American actor and director Ossie Davis; the film starred Godfrey Cambridge as Grave Digger Jones and Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson.

During the next twelve years, Himes wrote seven more novels featuring his detectives. All the books were set in Harlem, although it was an imaginary Harlem created at some distance and increasingly from memory by the expatriate Himes. The publication of the series in America—and the movies made from the novels—helped to resurrect Himes’s literary career, which eventually resulted in the reissue of his earlier novels of protest. Chester Himes is probably now as well known for the Harlem Domestic books as for his “straight” literary novels of the 1940’s and 1950’s. He concluded his writing career by publishing a two-volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976).