Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Most critics agree that Himes is not a deep thinker and that the success of his novels results not from their ideas, but from the intensity of their expression. Like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler, Himes has a terse, laconic style well suited to the description of violent action. Like his characters, obsessed with either committing crimes or catching criminals, Himes also seems obsessed, so that, as his French editor remarks in the preface to Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the detective novels appear to have been written under intolerable pressure.

Himes relates the adventures of Grave Digger and Coffin Ed through a third-person, omniscient narrator who leaps about in time and space at breathtaking speed, increasing the sense of a world in chaos. He relies mainly on dialogue to advance the plot and keeps his descriptions and commentary to a bare minimum. His descriptions of characters are usually limited to how they look and what they do. Rarely does he pause long enough to reveal a character's inner psychology, yet his descriptions are so vivid that his characters linger in the memory. For example, the two detectives frequent a restaurant owned by Mammie Louise. She is shaped like a weather balloon on two feet, with a pilot balloon for a head, and smells like stewed goat.

Himes places his characters in a physical setting described economically, but with enough detail to convey the texture of daily life in Harlem. He is a...

(The entire section is 365 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The social concerns revealed by Himes's writing are suggested by the titles of his two volumes of autobiography: The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976). Himes, who once observed two black convicts knife each other to death during an argument as to whether Paris was in France or France in Paris, believes that the life of American blacks is characterized by violence, resulting in an absurd, or meaningless, existence. Moreover, he realized that the fantasy world of hardboiled detective fiction, which portrays human life as violent and irrational and human society as malevolent and corrupt, is actually very similar to the real life of urban blacks in America, at least, as he himself had experienced it. Thus, Himes used his detective novels not only to entertain, but also to reveal the quality of life in the huge black ghetto of Harlem, where sordid violence and degrading poverty have warped the lives of the inhabitants.

The Harlem of Cotton Comes to Harlem is a dangerous city of the exploited and the homeless. As the narrator explains, Harlemites originally left the American South because they could never consider it their home, only to discover that lurid and violent Harlem could not be their true home either. In the novel, therefore, they are easily deceived by the Rev. Deke O'Malley's Back-to-Africa swindle, and eighty-seven families each turn over one thousand dollars in a desperate gamble to improve their lives....

(The entire section is 330 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Berry, Jay R., Jr. “Chester Himes and the Hard-Boiled Tradition.” The Armchair Detective 15, no. 1 (1982): 38-43. Discusses Cotton Comes to Harlem in the context of the other Harlem Domestic novels and of hard-boiled crime fiction in general, stressing the moral dimensions of the tradition.

Lundquist, James. Chester Himes. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1976. In the chapter “Search Warrants for the Inner City,” Lundquist mentions the respect the detectives receive from the residents of Harlem and the cold efficiency with which they administer justice, if not always the law.

Milliken, Stephen F. Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976. Discusses Cotton Comes to Harlem among the other crime novels in a section entitled “The Continental Entertainer,” into which he lumps most of Himes’s later work.

Muller, Gilbert H. Chester Himes. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Muller argues that Cotton Comes to Harlem contains less violence than the other Harlem Domestic novels but nevertheless contains the same vision of a grotesque and contradictory world; moreover, he asserts that the book takes on an apocalyptic tone that recurs in the last of the series, Blind Man with a Pistol (1969).

Skinner, Robert E. Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989. In this full-length study of the Harlem Domestic novels, Skinner devotes a whole chapter, “Return to Africa,” to an outline of the plot and analysis of Cotton Comes to Harlem.

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Before Himes began writing his detective novels, his French editor suggested that he read those of Dashiell Hammett, the author who along with Raymond Chandler more or less established the conventions of the hard-boiled detective genre. After reading Hammett, Himes recognized that the detective novel, with its emphasis on violence, suspicion, and paranoia, would be an effective vehicle for expressing his own vision of life in black America. In his own novels, he retained Hammett's stress on action rather than plausible motive, as well as Hammett's fast-moving narratives, realistic settings, and use of dialogue to advance the plot. Himes's detectives are also in the Hammett tradition, insofar as they are brave men of violent action, with a sure knowledge of the street and the intelligence to see through murky layers of deception.

However, all critics agree that Himes's detective series as a whole works towards the negation of the traditional hard-boiled detective novel, in which the detective usually must solve a single crime, and in doing so, restore society to its original state of order. Because the outcome is certain, the detective's successful solution of the crime implies that although the world may be violent and confusing, man is nevertheless in control of his destiny. The first five novels in Himes's series satisfy these conventions, with the difference that in the process of solving the original crime, the often brutal Grave Digger and Coffin Ed...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As a chronological unit, Himes's eight detective novels trace the development of Himes as an artist and offer an imaginative social history of black America during a twelve-year period of racial upheaval. The series begins with For Love of Imabelle (1957), set in a relatively "normal" world and then increasingly emphasizes meaningless and absurd elements until in Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), Himes carries the detective novel to its outer limits by concluding on an apocalyptic note of complete social collapse. Within the series Grave Digger and Coffin Ed undergo a related transformation. They begin as decent men forced to become brutal, then turn into coldly efficient killers, and finally end up as completely inefficient spectators.

The first novel in the series is not so much a "detective" novel as it is a naturalistic study of the Harlem underworld. The two detectives are secondary characters, far from being the main focus of attention. In the next four novels, however, they assume center stage and become the medium for the author's oblique social commentary on the experience of being black in America. These novels are what critics call "mayhem novels." They progress not through the detectives' logical steps in solving the crime, but through a wild, disjointed trail of violence, grotesque surprises, and murder galore. In All Shot Up (1960), for example, a thief fleeing on a motorcycle from the detectives is decapitated as he...

(The entire section is 417 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Cotton Comes to Harlem was released as a motion picture in 1970 (produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., directed by Ossie Davis, distributed by United Artists). Although it was intended as the first of a series, it had just one sequel, based on The Heat's On and released in 1974: Come Back Charleston Blue (produced by Goldwyn, directed by Davis, distributed by Warner Brothers).

Although these films were reasonably popular, they were thoroughly disliked by Himes, who felt that the screenplays made his two detectives of no consequence. While the screenplays do not do justice to the frantic violence and grim humor of the novels, more fundamental problems are the thoroughly routine direction and the miscasting of Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as the two detectives. St. Jacques is adequate as Coffin Ed, but Cambridge, with his big moon face, rolling eyes, and enormous belly, is more amiable than frightening. Neither actor is able to convey the sense of deadly menace essential to Himes's original conception. The two films are not great cinema; however, they did help to make Himes better known in America and no doubt prompted many people to seek out his novels.

(The entire section is 193 words.)