“All Shot Up” by Chester Himes (republished by Penguin Modern Classics)

Bodies with holes where there shouldn’t be holes

The title has a double meaning – all shot up with flying lead and all shot up with dangerous and illegal intravenous drugs. There’s usually plenty of both in Chester Himes’ free-wheeling gratuitously violent black crime novels. Black has a double meaning too – black as in morbid humour and black as in Harlem, New York City’s nigger central.
19. June 2021 15:17

Himes – born in Missouri, United States, in 1909, died in Moraira, Spain, in 1984 – was black himself and experienced American racism first-hand, eventually quitting the country in 1953 for Europe where he found the temperament more congenial than the racially segregated US.

The books that made his name were mainly written in France during what were still the dark-age 1960s in America, so “nigger” is a word he employs freely and there’s no need to shudder about it in today’s (slightly?) more enlightened times. Crime and desperation are still always with us as many people fall into the poverty or opioid traps.

In reading and writing about four of the five of Himes’ Harlem Series novels that were reissued this March, and which feature New York Police Department black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, The Budapest Times has concentrated mainly on the positives: the imaginatively bizarre plots, unhinged criminal mayhem and general absurdity and rawness involving the more dubious echelons of humanity.

Talking about holes in bodies, which we were, here’s one example in “All Shot Up”: “He ran into a brace of slugs and came reeling back with two sudden eyes in his forehead.” And then there’s this incident: “The drunk swung a long arc with his right hand… and plunged the blade of a hunting knife through Big Six’s head. It went in above the left temple, and two inches of the point came out on a direct line above the right temple. Big Six went deaf, dumb and blind, but not unconscious. He teetered slightly and groped about aimlessly like an old blind man.”

Well, that’s the way it is. The book is our final dip into the quintet of reissues, and, as always, the next car chase or shoot-out or grisly death is seldom far away in these cinematic-like depictions of troubled black life. Don’t expect plausibility to hold up strongly, and the reader just has to be prepared to go along with the wild ride, while holding on tight. Talking of wild rides, there’s the fleeing motorcyclist who unfortunately gets beheaded during a road chase.

There were eight books in the Harlem Cycle, as they came to be known, and an unfinished one, and this is the fifth one chronologically, published first in France, where Himes lived and had more of a following, as “Imbroglio negro” in 1959 and not until 1960 in its original English as “All Shot Up” in the less-appreciative United States.

But Himes has ridden out the decades since, although, as we’ve hinted, there are some negatives too. Chief among them here is the complicated plot, especially at the beginning, when Himes ploughs ahead, seemingly determined to get on with it quickly. To summarise the start: A thief stealing a wheel from a car can hardly believe his eyes when he sees a Cadillac looking as though it were made of solid gold and “big enough to cross the ocean, if it could swim. It lit up the black-dark street like a passing bonfire”.

Isn’t that his own true Sassafras on board with two men, one wearing a coonskin Davy Crockett hat with a big bushy tail and the other wearing a black Homburg hat and white silk scarf with a small bearded face like some kind of amateur magician?

It’s nighttime – the best time to remove wheels from someone else’s car – and the golden-finish Cadillac knocks down an old woman in the street. They see her get up, only to get run over again by three cops in a black Buick, hitting her so hard she is embedded in a convent wall. Except they’re not really cops, and the old woman is not really a woman, or old. And the “cops” steal the Caddie and ditch the Buick. The Buick is then taken over by the original three – the Davy Crockett, Sassafras lot – and they go off in search of the Cadillac.

Plus, there’s killing across town outside the Paris Bar: a shootout involving the three miscreants dressed as cops. Two people are left dead, an important black politician is in a coma and $50,000 goes missing –  and no one is talking. Enter Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, they of the unorthodox methods, on a sub-freezing night in Harlem to deal with an inordinate number of transvestites in the homosexual subculture.

This is the detective duo at their best, or worst depending on your view, just another routine investigation or two for our favourite badass cops. It’s difficult to keep up with the body count as Himes tosses them aside, with victims changing names and identities (not forgetting the change of gender of the “old woman”) and getting shot, stabbed and beheaded.

Fortunately, Himes uses some of the dialogue once or twice to summarise the tangled action, bringing a degree of clarity to anyone left wondering by the madness, including us. It is a vivid, or over-vivid, picture of Harlem life, and racism is always there: “The rich used to live here,” Coffin Ed remarked. “Still so,” Grave Digger said. “Just changed color. Colored rich folks always live in the places abandoned by white rich folks.”

And that’s it for us from Chester Himes for a while, though he’s left us in the mood to maybe catch up with the rest of the Harlem Cycle one of these days. And why not?

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