“The Real Cool Killers” by Chester Himes (published by Penguin Modern Classics)

A case of mayhem in Harlem

It’s a matter of regret now that on my only visits to New York City, three times (I think) in the 1980s-90s, I chickened out and never visited Harlem. After all, the city had a fairly heavy vibe back then and if a honky white fella took the “A” train he would certainly get mugged the minute he stepped out at 145th Street, right? Even in broad daylight. All those tooled-up blacks.
1. June 2021 17:17

Indeed, here is a vicarious episode from Chester Himes and his 1960 novel, reissued this March, which, if I’d read it in the 1980s, I certainly would never have even thought of stepping foot in Harlem, and most probably would have decided that a visit to the gang-infested Bronx would be a much safer bet.

The book is the black novelist’s second with his two African-American detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, who patrol the combustible Harlem beat. And this Harlem is no place for a white man, and certainly not the Dew Drop Inn, where the only pale face in the joint this particular night is about to learn his lesson the hard way, as they say.

The inn is just one of the myriad bars in the jiving neighbourhood with jukeboxes, this joint right now playing a Big Joe Turner record with enough heat in the rhythm to melt bones, as Himes puts it. But a drunken scrawny little chicken-necked fool takes exception to the presence of the out-of-place honky and produces a spring-blade knife to do some cutting, in front of everyone.

Big Smiley, the barman, jumps in to stop the assailant and gets a cut arm, whereupon he picks up his short-handled fireman’s axe with a honed, razor-sharp blade and chops off the aggressor’s arm just below the elbow as if it had been guillotined.

The severed arm in its coat sleeve, still clutching the knife, sails through the air, sprinkling the crowd of coloured patrons with drops of blood. It lands on the linoleum tiled floor and skids beneath the table of a booth. The bevvied-up knifeman is so drunk he drops to his knees and begins scrambling about the floor with his one remaining hand, searching for his severed arm and knife to continue the fight. Blood spurts from his jerking stub as though from the nozzle of a hose, Himes calmly informs us.

Everyone scrambles for the door, pronto, including the big white man, Ulysses Galen, a Greek who is a King Cola salesman, where he is unlucky to be spotted outside by Sonny Pickens, another seething black man, this one having been smoking marijuana and who is thus sky-high. Sonny accuses the white fellow of messing with his wife (although Sonny doesn’t actually have one) and shoots him.

But when the cops arrive in numbers, Coffin Ed Johnson, Grave Digger Jones and their colleagues establish that the smoking gun in Sonny’s hand as he stands over the lifeless body of the Greek only fires blanks. So who did shoot him, apparently at the same moment as Sonny?

Pause for breath, readers, we’ve barely started yet. Still to come are the eight “Arabs” with heavy grizzly black beards and wearing bright green turbans, smoke-coloured glasses and ankle-length white robes. Their complexions range from stovepipe black to mustard. In fact, they are a group of teenage gangsters who call themselves the Real Cool Moslems.

Patrol cars and search teams descend on the neighbourhood. One of the Real Cool Moslems tosses perfume at Coffin, who freaks and shoots the youth dead. Coffin had his face scarred when acid was thrown on him in the preceding book, ”A Rage in Harlem” (the first of this series by Himes that originally came out in 1957, also reissued this March). He’s lucky not to have been blind. Thus he is rather trigger-happy.

In the confusion the gang slip away with Sonny, who had been handcuffed by the cops. So the hunt is on for Sonny, for the Real Cool Moslems and for the real killer of the Greek, the mysterious murderer who fired a real bullet, not a blank. To complicate things further, Coffin Ed’s daughter is up to her pretty little neck in the whole explosive business.

And with Coffin sidelined for killing the perfume tosser, Grave Digger is left without his partner to hit the streets questioning hookers and shaking down hustlers. He’s not above resorting to pistol whipping or gunplay.

Well, that’s enough plot to be going on with. Himes has a whole lot more heavy stuff where that came from. And who better to write realistic – or overblown – crime stories than a person who spent seven and a half years in the Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery? Nineteen-year-old Himes was sentenced to 20- to 25-years hard labour in 1929 but was paroled.

For him, writing became an opportunity to present white notions of blacks and vice-versa. The plot is tight and dense. The local colour of Harlem is convincing. Humour and absurdity are employed and Himes’ attitude to violence is casual. He said he used absurdity because that was the daily experience of a black man in white America.

Himes died in 1984 and, it must be said, that readable as his books are (this is my second one), he has been surpassed since then by other crime writers, whether for cool dialogue, gratuitous sex and violence, nastiness, blood, dark wit, seediness or really tight writing.

But Himes is a Harlem man: “On the left-hand corner, next to a fourteen-story apartment building erected by a white insurance company, was the Brown Bomber Bar; across from it Big Crip’s Bar; on the right-hand corner Cohen’s Drug Store with its iron-grilled windows crammed with electric hair straightening irons, Hi-Life hair cream, Black and White bleaching cream, SSS and 666 blood tonics, Dr. Scholl’s corn pads, men’s and women’s nylon head caps with chin straps to press hair while sleeping, a bowl of blue stone good for body lice, tins of Sterno canned heat good for burning or drinking, Halloween postcards and all the latest in enamelware hygiene utensils; across from it Zazully’s  Delicatessen with a white-lettered announcement on the plate-glass window: We Have Frozen Chitterlings and Other Hard-to-find Delicacies.”

Are white cops more enlightened today than in 1960 when Himes has one offering this stereotype: “Have you ever stopped to think there are five hundred thousand colored people in Harlem – one half of a million people with black skin. All looking alike. And we’re trying to pick out eight of them. It’s like trying to find a cinder in a coal bin. It ain’t possible.”

Himes is a Harlem man. Perhaps “The Real Cool Killers” isn’t quite as funny or wonderfully weird or deep as Himes’ first Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones effort, “A Rage in Harlem”, but still, we’re not holding it against him, and book three of the five reissued this March awaits.

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