“The Heat’s On” by Chester Himes (republished by Penguin Modern Classics)

Sometimes a cop just can’t help getting a bit rough…

Here we go again: the sixth book in Chester Himes’ Harlem Series of nine detective novels from the 1950s and 1960s is The Budapest Times’ fourth dose of the criminal mayhem in which this African-American author specialised. As before, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are two black cops in Harlem who, if they don’t find the evidence they want, aren’t averse to planting a bit of their own.
13. June 2021 14:43

Neither do they mind indulging in a bit of biff when need be, and why wouldn’t you rough up suspected drug-dealing low-lifes and petty criminals of every hue and creed if you thought the end justified the means? After all, Harlem is one troublesome black neighbourhood. There’s a lot of murdering going on, and the body count here runs to 12, a nice round dozen.

Grave Digger stops a bullet himself, putting him out of action for most of the book and leaving Coffin Ed to operate alone, and in fact Grave Digger’s death is announced but it was just a ploy to unsettle the hoods. Pity they didn’t tell Coffin Ed it was a hoax, though.

First published in 1966 and one of five in the Harlem Series reissued this March, “The Heat’s On” sees our two anti-heroes upholding the law, in their own tough way, when everyone around them seems to be bent on breaking it. We open up with Pinky, a giant albino dope fiend negro with a preference for injecting cocaine and heroin “speedballs”, and Jake, a heroin-dealing hunchback dwarf. Pinky has a dog the size of a female lion.

Then there’s Uncle Saint, a shotgun-wielding chauffeur-bodyguard and ventriloquist, and Sister Heavenly, a drug-dealing, marijuana-smoking, ruthless killer but also a faith healer. One of the places where she hides her drugs is up the rectum of a rabbit.

They all call one another “mother-raper”, which presumably had to stand in for “mother-fucker” in the more censorious 1960s. The two detectives’ faces bear marks and scars similar to any coloured street fighter. Grave Digger’s is full of lumps where felons have hit him from time to time with various weapons; Coffin Ed’s is a patchwork of scars where skin has been grafted over the burns that were left when acid was thrown at him. When he tracked down the thrower he shot him in both eyes.

No wonder they get out of control sometimes. Unfortunately, when Coffin Ed and Grave Digger apprehend Jake, he quickly swallows his drugs, causing Grave Digger to smash him in the stomach so that he will vomit up the evidence.

Too hard. Jake dies and the two detectives are suspended from duty. It’s all coming to a boil, and, yes, the heat’s on, literally as well as figuratively, which makes everyone tense. “Even at past two in the morning… Harlem east of Seventh Avenue, was like the frying pan of hell. Heat was coming out of the pavement, bubbling from the asphalt… Colored people were cooking in their overcrowded, overpriced tenements; cooking in the streets, in the after-hours joints, in the brothels; seasoned with vice, disease and crime.”

Himes piles it on: “An effluvium of hot stink arose from the frying pan and hung in the hot motionless air… the smell of sizzling barbecue, fried hair, exhaust fumes, rotting garbage, cheap perfumes, unwashed bodies, decayed buildings, dog-rat-and-cat offal, whiskey and vomit, and all the old dried-up odors of poverty.”

And so, the two cops are suspended from the force until further notice for “unwarranted brutality” over the death of Jake. It’s nothing unusual, really: in Harlem the people have long been frightened of the gruesome twosome and their reputation for threatening, pistol-whipping and punching.

Naturally, a mere suspension doesn’t stop them investigating on the QT to get their badges back, and that’s how Grave Digger cops his bullet., leaving Coffin Ed as the angel of vengeance tearing apart the steaming hot Harlem in his search for the cache of heroin that led to the whole mess.

Coffin Ed is a civilian on a manhunt, his gun and badge have been taken away and he is outside of the law himself. He should report his suspicions to the station but he knows that if he backs away now in the face of the Harlem gunslingers he’ll never live it down. Further complications are an African with his throat slit and that huge dog, which now has an open head wound.

Ed sums it all up: “What hurts me most about this business is the attitude of the public towards cops like me and Digger. Folks just don’t want to believe that what we’re trying to do is make a decent peaceful city for people to live in, and we’re going about it the best way we know how. People think we enjoy being tough, shooting people and knocking them in the head.”

Himes, recall, came from a respectable middle-class family, growing up in Missouri and Ohio where his father was a college professor and his mother a teacher in a seminary. Himes was in college himself until being expelled in 1929.

At age 19 he had been arrested, beaten by the police and sentenced to 25 years’ hard labour for armed robbery. He served seven and a half years before being parolled, during which time he began writing short stories. He lived through the Great Depression and knew what it was like to be a black man in a white-run society long before the civil rights movement in America.

Himes knew the score out on the streets. He moved to Europe and published his first Harlem detective novel in 1957, “A Rage in Harlem”, a book that went on to win the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious award for crime and detective fiction.

Himes followed this with seven more books starring his New York Police Department detectives as well as one unfinished novel, all of which put the perspective of both black law enforcement and black criminals front and centre. “The Heat’s On” continues the brutal comic surrealism and grisly violence: gut-punching stuff.

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