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.