Chester Himes had originally intended to become a serious writer. Certain events, however, conspired to drive him toward genre fiction, and he is best remembered today for his series of noir-flavored, hard-boiled detective novels set in Harlem.
As an Ohio teenager, Himes ran afoul of the law, and he spent years in prison for armed robbery. During his incarceration, he passed the time reading pulp fiction and became a fan of such writers as Raymond Chandler, author of the highly regarded series of mystery novels featuring private detective Philip Marlowe. Himes began writing and then published some short fiction while still in prison.
Upon his release, Himes returned to old habits: associating with dubious friends, remaining jobless, and smoking marijuana. Faced with a return to prison, he found work and began writing again. By the mid-1940’s, he had published two literary novels, but they failed to win him financial stability or critical acclaim. In the early 1950’s, like African American writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright before him, Himes relocated to Europe. In 1957, nearly broke, he connected with French actor-writer Marcel Duhamel, founder and editor of the publishing imprint Série Noire, who suggested that Himes write a pulp novel set in Harlem based on one simple principle: Start with action and keep up a blistering pace for more than two hundred pages. Himes took the advice to heart and wrote For Love of Imabelle (1957; revised as A Rage in Harlem, 1965; also known as The Five-Cornered Square). The novel introduced black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones; presented a new backdrop for crime—Harlem; established Himes’s unique style of detective fiction; and brought him the recognition he sought, winning France’s top literary honor for the 1957 novel.
Cotton Comes to Harlem, the eighth of ten Harlem-domestic novels by Himes, epitomizes the author’s many strengths in the detective genre. For a person who had never lived in Harlem, Himes does a remarkable job of presenting the predominately black neighborhood in New York’s borough of Manhattan as a...
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