“A Rage in Harlem” by Chester Himes (published by Penguin Modern Classics)

Black skins, black hearts, black humour

Anticipation bubbled up when we noted the reissuing of five 1950s-60s novels by Chester Himes this March. It’s our belief that worthy art/entertainment – call it what you will – has a habit of coming round again if you missed it first time, and while we had never read anything by Himes, the name was vaguely familiar to us within the crime-writing pantheon. Plus, the man had one outstanding quality not possessed by any of the other such writers we admire: he was the real deal, sentenced to a 20- to 25-year stretch of hard labour for armed robbery.
24. May 2021 16:01

The other thing was that Himes was African-American, and thus much of his work, perhaps understandably, had a black slant, often centred on New York’s Harlem. The news of the reissues led us to read up on the man, and over the course of a few articles we discovered the leading of a singular life, one that we had to explore.

It’s quite a biography. Himes was born in 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri, to a middle-class family, his father a professor of mechanical arts at various black colleges, primarily in the Midwest, and his mother was also college educated. She was, as one Himes biographer says, “colour struck”, and tried to build up her sons by telling them, “You mustn’t think of yourself as coloured. … You both have white blood – fine white blood – in your veins”.

It was apparently the domination of his black-skinned father by his light-skinned mother that was a source of deep resentment which shaped Himes’ racial outlook. In his novels he would later lash out at such pretentions and black-on-black racism of middle-class African-Americans.

Though his brothers went on to solid careers, Himes proved a disappointment to the family. He rebelled against the message of uplift that he received at home and school. The family’s frequent relocations, as well as the accidental blinding of his brother, further disrupted his childhood.

While an undergrad at Ohio State University he sought out a rougher kind of education in the gambling dens, speakeasies and bordellos around campus on a stretch of Cleveland known as the Bucket of Blood. He was arrested for using a fake ID and cashing a bad cheque.

Out on bail, Himes stole a car, drove to a white neighbourhood and, armed with a handgun, forced his way into a wealthy home and robbed the couple inside. He was caught the next day. In 1929, 19-year-old Himes went from the state university to the Ohio State Penitentiary.

He was given the maximum sentence for armed robbery of 20 to 25 years hard labour. He was eventually released on parole after seven and a half years, time during which he had started to write, and be published, first in black newspapers and eventually in the white media.

In 1934 the respected magazine Esquire published “To What Red Hell”, his account of the horrific 1930 Easter Monday penitentiary fire in which some 330 inmates died.

The story generated a novel, although it wasn’t published until 1952, as “Cast the First Stone”, and not in unexpurgated form until 1998, as “Yesterday Will Make You Cry”.

Released from jail during the Great Depression, Himes bounced from one menial job to another while still writing. He worked in the shipyards around Los Angeles and published his first novel, “If He Hollers Let Him Go”, in 1945. This contrasted the West Coast untainted by slavery, and the remunerative employment for all made possible by the war, with the deadly reality of racism.

The book earned Himes recognition in literary circles, which were primarily left-wing then. His next book, “’Lonely Crusade” in 1947, took on the Communist Party itself, as a treacherous and manipulative entity, and the book was savaged in reviews across the ideological spectrum.

A humiliating stint as a Hollywood scriptwriter ended in his being fired on racial grounds – as he wrote later, he felt he survived undamaged the earlier disasters in his life but it was “under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate”.

Fed up with the racism he saw at every turn and the failure of his writing to gain any critical or financial success, he expatriated himself to Paris in 1953, a city that he – like many African-American intellectuals of his generation – found to be a sympathetic and stimulating haven. Here he finally achieved the popularity he had been denied at home.

He lived much of the rest of his life first in France and then in Spain, where he moved in 1969.

A meeting with Marcel Duhamel, a former Surrealist who after the war founded the wildly popular and influential “Serie Noire” imprint of crime novels, resulted in Himes being commissioned to write an African-American comedy-caper.

This became “La Reine des pommes” (The Queen of Fools), published in England in 1957 as “For Love of Imabelle”, or “A Rage in Harlem”, and which won the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policiere.

This was the first of eight Harlem black detective novels featuring hard-boiled cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson that were to make Himes famous. It was followed by further titles, each translated first into French and then published in English, including “The Real Cool Killers” (1960), “All Shot Up” (1960), “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1965) and “The Heat’s On” (1966).

These are the five books reissued by Penguin Classics, and here at The Budapest Times we hope to read them all. Himes died in Spain in 1984 and perhaps we will be able to add him to the other crime novellists we admire for a good bit of mystery – Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, early James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler, Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Kinky Friedman to name some.

We started off with “A Rage in Harlem”, and the first few chapters had the sucking power of an octopus’ tentacle – Chapter One, 28-year-old Jackson lands himself in deep trouble; Chapter Two, Jackson gets himself into even deeper trouble while trying to get out of the trouble he got himself into in Chapter One; Chapter Three, Jackson drops even further into the smelly brown stuff. And so it goes on.

Jackson is a love-struck simpleton who is taken for all the money he could raise by a gang of swindlers, just arrived in Harlem from Mississippi, who are practising two venerable con tricks, one called “the Blow” in which one-dollar bills will be “converted” to 10-dollar bills, and 10-dollar bills will be “converted” to 100s.

For good measure they have a second con, a lost-goldmine scam in which worthless rocks are used as apparent evidence to encourage mugs to invest in a non-existent enterprise.

Can Jackson trust his own twin brother, Goldy, a junkie who poses as a nun to collect alms outside a department store? Goldy’s roommates are two other female impersonators, one a brothel madam and one a palm reader. Grave Digger is scarred by acid thrown in his face. The stiffs pile up.

Here is a Harlem choked with whorehouses, gambling clubs, dope dens, after-hours joints, flea-ridden flop houses called hotels, rats, cockroaches, mangy dogs and fetid tenements with teeming life in dismal squalor, “a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub”.

It’s violent but Himes also has some fun on the way. Four more books await.

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