Friday, February 1, 2019

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

The first of Chester Himes’ eight Harlem crime novels featuring New York police detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, was A Rage in Harlem, published in 1957. But these two men do not appear until about a third of the way into this book.

A Rage in Harlem is the story of Jackson, a ridiculously naïve man who lives with the sexy, seductive Imabelle, a woman with a shady past and who may or may not be in on a scheme to fleece the trusting, pious Jackson.

A man claiming he can change ten-dollar bills into hundred-dollar bills with some special chemically treated parchment takes Jackson’s life savings in an explosive opening scene. A phony U.S. marshal arrives, the con man and Imabelle escape, but Jackson is caught, frightened and further fleeced. To pay off the phony fed, Jackson steals a stack of money from the safe of his boss, the local undertaker.

This is only the beginning of a wickedly wild ride for Jackson. The ride includes recruiting the help of his twin brother, a drug addict, who makes a living dressing like a nun and selling tickets to heaven to suckers on 125th Street. Later Jackson will steal his boss’ hearse to make a getaway.

Into this stew come Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, who are both black, tough, savvy, and carry large, cannon-like .38s.

The story spins so fast and so unexpectedly readers will see why Himes was famous for his absurd story lines in the service of making points about life in the 1950s.

Chester Himes’ crazy, violent, funny novel is truly noir on many fronts. It lives up to the dark, cynical view of the world of the traditional noir. The twist is the hilarious way Himes tells his story, often while describing violence.

The humor is brutally dark and involves gun battles, knife fights, acid thrown in faces, and an ax. Here is an example from a passage in which the detectives persuade one of the con men to cooperate:

“Coffin Ed slapped Gus on the check with his open palm. Gus’s tight-fitting hat sailed off and he spun toward Grave Digger, who slapped him on the other cheek and spun him back toward Coffin Ed. They slapped him fast, from one to another, like batting a ping-pong ball. Gus’s head began ringing. He lost his sense of balance and his legs began to buckle. They slapped him until he fell to his knees, deaf to the world.”

This was a decade before reading a suspect his Miranda rights became custom. Writing in the mid-1950s, Himes may have been recalling practices from the 1930s or 1940s. Also, not all the violence in A Rage in Harlem is slapstick, some of it just plain shocking.

The gruesomely violent and action-packed wind up to the story, however, is so funny any reader will feel guilty for smiling as Himes piles one garish moment on top of another.

For a 1957 novel, the dialogue is unusually frank in its use of expletives. Quite a few times, characters uttered “mother-raper,” which I suppose was the only way U.S. publishers could even suggest the term and keep the street flavor of the dialogue.

Chester Himes (1909-1984) wrote 20 novels and two autobiographies. I own six Vintage reprints of the Coffin Ed and Grave Digger novels and will be re-reading more of them this year.

(For more posts on books, head over to Patti Abbott’s page.)


  1. I read Chester Himes back in the 1960s and enjoyed his work. I found the six novels about Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones uneven at times. But no one was writing crime novels like this 50 years ago and Himes deserves credit for his innovations.

  2. I do need to read more from Himes. It's been a while since I tried his work.

  3. Chester Himes is one of several authors whose paperbacks turn up regularly at the book exhibitions I frequent. I will pick up a couple of his titles next time.

  4. Great review....Himes is still hugely underrated...Thanks for your comment on my blog