Monday, February 22, 2010

Chester 'the man' Himes

Have you ever heard of Chester Himes? I hope so but, if not, now is the time.

Chester Himes is a writer, from some time back in the day, known for one or two things, in particular his novel about racial injustice and the mind-set of the black man in If He Hollers Let Him Go, a book which is frequently compared to Richard Wright's Native Son. Favorably. This is a fantastic book, which I highly recommend, but this isn't what I wanted to talk about.

Himes began writing seriously while in prison, on a charge of jewel theft. Writing, he claimed, was a way to gain respect, both with the inmates and the guards. During this period he invented two of the greatest, most colorful characters in the history either of black writing or mystery writing- the Harlem Detectives. Set obviously in Harlem, this series of mysteries is wild, adventurous, violent, colorful, filled with soul and jazz and home-cooking, replete with wacky antics and repressed class rage. They are classics. They are not well-known due to their somewhat pulpy nature, although when one has read Himes, and understands where he is coming from, there is far more to find even in these hard-boiled noir pulps than the surface impression would suggest.

The Harlem Detectives are Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. They are huge, angry black men, known for their extremely short tempers, their nickel-plated .44 revolvers (which they fire into the ceiling of the police station so often, for purposes of riot control, that by this time the city has simply given up trying to fix all the holes), their fair and just treatment of black people, and a single-minded pursuit of justice- even for whites. They are legends within their own city. It is commonly understood, amongst residents of Harlem, that when Gravedigger and Coffin Ed tell you to line up, you line up. It has never had to happen, but it is not questioned, that they can and will shoot you, simply for stepping over an invisible line. These characters are larger than life, near-mythical figures. Gravedigger has a prominent vein which sprouts on his head whenever he is frustrated or furious, which is often. Coffin Ed, due to an early adventure in the series, sports an acid-burn scar across half of his face, because of which he is overly sensitive to fluids being thrown at him. They are also family men, who love their wives and in Ed's case children. And they love their people. In true hard-boiled fashion, they will buck the rules in order to show even-handed justice to their brothers and sisters. Even if this means bringing a little heavy-handed techniques to these same brothers and sisters.

The Harlem Detective novels are fast-paced, soulful, funny, full of jive, full of excitement, and a surprisingly accurate depiction of Harlem during the period (although, being young and white, I can only trust my sources on this). Hearses roar through the streets, bleeding coffins into market during high-speed chases; a white cop is seduced by a 'high-yellow' sister, ending up locked in an apartment hallway, naked, with a paper bag over his head and a gun in his hand. These are some of the more memorable comedic scenes in these books, and others, grim, dark and violent, also stick out in my head. Cotton Comes to Harlem is probably the most famous of these books, although if you want to start from the beginning, you will need A Rage in Harlem. I recommend these books very highly. They're better even than I'm describing, literarily, and they are some of the most fun I've ever had.

Being such a fan, and finally finding this strange 'artifact' on netflix, I recently got a chance to watch the movie adaptation of Cotton Comes to Harlem.

Netflix describes this as being a cut above the typical 70's blaxploitation flick. I'm not qualified to say, since the only other one I've ever seen was I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, which I'm afraid doesn't count, being a parody. All I can logically assume is that is a solid representative of the genre, and considering the source probably is better than the average. All the right scenes from the book were depicted in the film- obviously no movie can ever match the depth of the written word, so not everything was there, but it was edited together in a sensible way, and one got the 'gist' of the novel by watching the film.

I was a little surprised to find that Coffin Ed, who for some reason did not sport his character-defining acid scar, seemed to take prominence over Gravedigger. Whenever I read the books, I always thought of Gravedigger as the only-slightly-more-prominent detective. Not a problem or anything, just a strange flop.

The music, and I suspect that this is what really defines blaxploitation and what allows it to have cult followers, was god-dam excellent. A perfectly realized, perfectly adapted soul soundtrack, which to me was the star of the show. I could put this movie on just for the purpose of listening to it, although it was so colorful and fast that I'd probably end up watching it anyway.

No, it wasn't really a -good- movie per se. It was fun, and worth a watch if you're a fan either of blaxploitation or Chester Himes. If you're both, you might get something out of it that I missed. I suppose I'd have to recommend reading the book first. If you like what you see, the movie might be worth a rent.

However, the books I would consider essential reading, for mystery fans, for fans of black literature, for fans of action; for practically anybody. Do yourself a favor and discover Chester Himes. It might be the best thing you do all year.


  1. I did not know that Cotton Comes to Harlem was based on a Chester Himes. I think I finally returned all of your books to you?

  2. all except demon princes volume 2 and, oddly, chester himes' 'a rage in harlem.' but go ahead and keep 'rage in harlem.' you need to read it.