Friday 14 September 2018

Forgotten Book - A Rage in Harlem

Chester Himes was one of the most interesting American crime writers of the twentieth century. He was sent to prison for armed robbery as a teenager, and after serving his sentence he began to establish himself, both in the US and in France, as a writer of distinction. At one point he spent time at the writers' colony at Yaddo, also frequented by Patricia Highsmith and Kenneth Fearing at the outset of their careers as novelists.

I think it's fair to say that his work has never been as well-known in Britain, perhaps because it seemed so different, so ahead of its time in the late 50s and then the 60s, when he was at his peak. I've only just caught up with his debut novel, A Rage in Harlem, which I read on the plane back from Florida, and I was greatly impressed. Yet, though it first came out in 1957, my paperback edition from 2000 seems to be the first British edition.

It's an exuberant, witty, tough novel, written with an unflinching eye for the follies and foibles of human nature. The opening premise is very funny - a naive chap called Jackson, who works for an undertaker, falls victim to confidence tricksters, who persuade him that they can make him rich. As a result, he loses everything and finds himself pursued by the police when he steals from his employer. He has to turn for help to his twin brother, a hoodlum who masquerades as a nun. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it works, and it's very funny as well as quite exciting.

Himes introduces Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, who became his series detectives, and very formidable they are too. I don't know Harlem, so I can't be sure that Himes' portrayal of it is authentic. But what matters is that it seems authentic. He had me hooked, and I devoured this short, violent book with a great deal of enthusiasm.


Dave Hartley said...

At the end of the 1960s Panther issued a lot of Chester Himes novels in the UK including this one.



In fact, Himes was occasionally criticized for an inaccurate depiction of Harlem. He actually grew up in Cleveland, and Max Allan Collins, who has written a number of Cleveland-set cop novels featuring real-life detective Eliot Ness (set during his tenure as the head of Cleveland's police force during the '30's) has suggested that Cleveland's black ghetto, located the Cleveland PD's Third District, the "so-called" Roaring Third, which was, in addition to being the city'c black ghetto, was also its red-light district, may have been the model for his version of Harlem.

In his Edgar-winning biography of Himes, Lawrence P. Jackson says that Himes based Coffin Ed and Grave Digger on two real-life LAPD cops, one of them as aspiring novelist, with whom he became acquainted during his time in Los Angeles, Det. Lt. Jess Kimbrough (who would, after retiring, go on to write an excellent police procedural, the semi-autobigraphical novel DEFENDER OF THE ANGELS) and his assistant, Det. Sgt. Charles Broady, two black cops who worked the Newston Street Division ("Shootin' Newton") in the '20's and '30's, so South Central, the black neighborhood served by the Newton Division may also have contibuted to his fictional "Harlem."

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Dave.

Martin Edwards said...

Jim, that's very interesting about the Cleveland connection and the real life models. Thanks a lot for the info.