Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Book You Have to Read:
“A Rage in Harlem,” by Chester Himes

(Editor’s note: This is the 124th installment of our ongoing blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s installment comes from Ayo Onatade. In addition to being a London-based contributor to both the e-zine Shots and its companion blog, Shotsmag Confidential, she writes for Crimespree Magazine. Ayo also works for 12 Justices at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, and is a major fan of American football.)

My introduction to Chester Himes goes back to what I refer to as my initial noir days. The period when I had finished reading the Golden Age classics and moved on to such authors as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem was initially titled La Reine des Pommes (The Queen of Fools) and was the opening entry in what would become known as his Harlem Cycle. When it was first published in the United States in 1957, the book was called For the Love of Imabelle. Himes actually wanted to call it The Five-Cornered Square. The novel went on to win the French crime-fiction prize, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, in 1958 in the international category.

A Rage in Harlem is not a lengthy novel; it comes in at just around 200 pages long and can be read in a single day, if you feel so inclined. It is also Himes’ first book to feature black Harlem cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Compared with the later books in that series, both of these characters feature a lot less in A Rage in Harlem. One wonders whether this was because Himes had not yet made the decision to use this pair of New York City cops in more than one book.

The novel begins with a guy named Jackson, who works (unofficially) for a local undertaker, borrowing money from his boss and then promptly losing it in a confidence trick set up by his beautiful but disloyal girlfriend, Imabelle, and her common-law husband, gang leader Slim, along with Slim’s cronies. Annoyed and upset by this turn of events, Jackson approaches his brother, who just happens to be a snitch for Jones and Johnson, to get his money back. Together, the police partners try to track down the swindlers and save Jackson.

There are a number of aspects to A Rage in Harlem that some modern readers might find uncomfortable; this book is certainly not for the prudish. Still, one has to remember that at the time Himes was working on his fiction, the way in which the New York police dealt with accused people and the victims of crime was not the same way they would deal with them today. It would be extremely hard for us to grasp nowadays how appalling what he was writing about was for many people in the 1950s.

(Left) Illustrator Mitchell Hooks’ 1957 American cover for Himes’ novel.

The level of violence portrayed in A Rage in Harlem is of varying degrees, most of it quite graphic but also some of it comedic in a dark way. For example, at one point Coffin Ed has acid thrown in his face--an act that changes his behavior from then on out. Grave Digger’s response, when he realizes that he has one of Ed’s attackers at the police station, is to commit an act both brutal and savage. Elsewhere in the book, two other characters meet quite appalling deaths, one being shot through both eyes, whilst the other is hacked open with an axe.

It is not surprising that Himes had difficulty portraying the police as good; his own experiences with officers of the law left a lot to be desired and no doubt influenced his fiction. Neither Jones nor Johnson can be seen as gallant. They are not only deceitful, but unless they are the ones committing violence, they find it objectionable. Furthermore, their idea of justice is trivial.

When one thinks of Chester Himes and the quality of his work, it is disappointing and sad to realize how disregarded he has become within American literary circles. His work was grimy and gritty, but also very well-written. His books offer a realistic portrayal of Harlem during a period when violence and social depravation went hand in hand. Himes was not afraid to deal with these issues in his fiction. It does occasionally make for uncomfortable reading; but one should not forget the entertainment value of his storytelling and also the socio-political energies that flow through a book such as this one.

A Rage in Harlem is an urban police procedural like no other. It offers a high degree of violence. It delves into female sexuality in rather blatant fashion, which some readers might find unnerving. And gender roles are thrown into the plotting mix along with alcohol and drug abuse and the varying ethnicities of some of the characters. Why this novel is so frequently overlooked by today’s readers is a mystery. Could it be that Chester Himes has been somehow ostracized by the American literati? One hopes not, because in A Rage in Harlem we are given a novel that is essentially a classic, a work of noir fiction that ranks with the best of them.


Unknown said...

I really like the Gravedigger and Cotton Ed books. Thanks for the reminder of how good they are.

Greg M. said...

Thank you for this interesting read. I was in a used book store recently, and I came across a UK collection of Chester Himes' first 3 "Harlem Cycle" novels, which of course includes A Rage In Harlem. It was that title that made me pick it up, and your review only reinforces my desire to crack that book open.

Fred Blosser said...

Great novelist. Stack Pierce and George Wallace made a pretty good Coffin Ed and Gravedigger in the 1991 movie.

Craig said...

I loved all the Coffin Ed & Gravedigger Jones novels, especially "Cotton Comes to Harlem." Incidentally, James Sallis, author of the crime novel "Drive," wrote a biography of Himes that was published in 2000: