Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Real Cool Killers - Chester Himes


I first became aware of the books of Chester Himes from one of the thirty-six segments of the The Great Courses class on Mysteries and Thrillers. I was already a fan of writers like Walter Mosley and Attica Locke, but the segment entitled “African-American Mysteries” introduced me to other writers like Himes, Barbara Neely, and Valerie Wilson Wesley whom I had never heard of. Of the three, I was most fascinated by Himes’s personal story.


Chester Himes was born in Missouri in 1909 and, although he did not start writing stories until he was serving prison time for a jewel theft in the 1930s, he would eventually publish almost twenty novels before he died in 1984. Fifteen or so years after being released from prison, Himes moved to Europe and became particularly well known in France, his new home country. He is best known for his Harlem Detectives novels featuring black NYPD detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. The novels are set in the 1950s and 1960s, and The Real Cool Killers (published in 1959) is one from that series. 


The gist of the plot is that a large white man has his life threatened by a knife-wielding black man who resents his presence in a Harlem bar in which everyone else inside is black. The white man is rescued by the bartender only to end up being chased down the street by a second black man firing shots at him from a pistol. After the white man learns the hard way that he can’t outrun bullets, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger are called to the scene of the crime to see what they can figure out — and all hell breaks loose. The result is that Coffin Ed is suspended from duty pending investigation of what he did after he arrived on the scene. Now, it is up to Gravedigger Jones not only to find the white man’s killer, but to justify his best friend’s behavior at the scene of the crime so that he can be reinstated to duty on the NYPD. 


If The Real Cool Killers is any indication, the Harlem Detective novels are an over-the-top, almost surrealistic representation of the Harlem of the fifties and sixties, but they still accurately portray the tone of how blacks and whites most often saw each other during those decades. In describing his black characters, Himes uses every racial stereotype in the book — many, if not most of them, so derogatory that even a back author would be unlikely to get away with using them in today’s politically correct world. That allows Himes, I think, to rather subtly slip in observations about how easy it is for Harlem’s residents to fool and manipulate the whites they encounter every day in their neighborhood, including the cops. (I should mention, too, that a key element of the plot is a simplistic and insulting view of the Muslim faith as seen through the eyes of one of the story’s villains.) 


Bottom Line: The Real Cool Killers is surely to be appreciated by fans of noire crime fiction because it doesn’t get much darker than this, and it's easy to see the influence that Chester Himes had on African-American crime writers, especially Walter Mosley, who followed him. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger are two characters I want to get to know better, so this will not be the last Chester Himes novel that I read. The work of Chester Himes compares favorably, I think, with two of his contemporaries: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Fans of those two should definitely take a look at Himes. 


Chester Himes Through the Years:




16 comments:

  1. You are coming up with some interesting "new" authors, Sam. I like the idea of knowing more about authors who influenced other authors and if the book compares favorably to Hammett and Chandler, that's another selling point.

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    1. That class is doing real damage to my TBR, Jen. Just this afternoon, I picked up from the library a book called "Havana Blue" by a Cuban writer called Leonardo Padura, who is also new to me. The novel is part of something called his "Havana Quartet" and the Great Courses lecturer raved about "Havana Blue," in particular. Each of the books is titled the same, but with a different color...supposedly representing the seasons.

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  2. I have been interested in reading something by Chester Himes for years, but never took the leap. I thought I might have at least a couple of his books, but I don't have any cataloged. I will have to do something about that after I clear a few books off the shelves.

    I have read Barbara Neely's first book, and have a copy of the second one to read. I have not heard of Valerie Wilson Wesley.

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    1. All I remember off the top of my head about Wesley is that she writes/wrote hardboiled novels featuring a character by the name of Hayle. One called "When Death Comes Stealing" was praised as the place to start with her.

      Himes is very good, but like I said in the review of this one, he's sometimes way over the top. But he buries a lot of realism inside the Harlem he creates.

      I haven't read Barbara Neely but I remember she was particularly praised in the lecture for her "Blanche White" novels. Did you read one of those?

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    2. I believe that Neely wrote only 4 mysteries, between 1992-2000, all Blanche White novels. I read the first one and liked it a lot. She was the 2020 Grand Master for the Mystery Writers of America, but died before she received the award.

      I will see if I can find a book by Wesley.

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    3. I plan on reading something from White as soon as I can work it in.

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  3. Thanks for this. I had, of course, heard of Chester Himes but I don't recall ever having read any reviews of his books and I know I haven't read the books. My husband has been reading Raymond Chandler recently and has commented on the racist references in his books. I suppose this might have been more a feature than a bug of mysteries and thrillers, as well as literature in general, of that era, whether the writer was Black or White. If Chester Himes could lead to Walter Mosley and Attica Locke, two favorites of mine, then good for him!

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    1. I think the racism in the books of that era may have been purposely exaggerated in order to contribute to the noirish, dark nature of the settings and plots. I was a little surprised that a black author would do it as much as Himes does in this one, though. But bottom line it's the white characters that usually end up looking like the biggest fools, so there's a lot going on with the tone of the Himes books, I think. Fro what I understand, Mosley is a big fan of Chester Himes.

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    1. It's good, but not always in the ways we judge mysteries. The times were certainly different and that's reflected in the book.

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  5. It sounds like Himes's life is deserving of a book all its own. I wonder if anyone's written a biography about him. I'll have to check and see.

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    1. I imagine someone must have written a bio of Himes, so if you find one, please do let me know.

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    2. So it looks like Lawrence P. Jackson wrote a book called Chester B. Himes: A Biography back in 2017. It's available on Amazon, but not at my library sadly.

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    3. Thanks for finding that info; I'll see if my library has a copy. It's a pretty obscure bio, so I doubt it, but you never know.

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  6. I've never read anything by this author and actually had not ever heard of him before. It certainly appears that he has had a colorful life. A good looking man in the younger days, wondering whether some of his other books may have felt like Mosley, an author I've enjoyed in the past.

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    1. Himes was raised in what I would call an upper middle class family, Diane. Both his parents were teachers, and I think one of them taught in a college, so the life he eventually lived must have come as quite a shock to his parents. Some of the books were made into black-exploitation (I think that's the term that was used to characterize them) movies in the sixties and seventies, but I never saw them.

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