A Rage in Harlem

Jackson is possibly the squarest mark in Harlem. He’s been shacking up with a woman from down south named Imabelle, a painted lady with red nail polish, swishing hips, and breasts worth the effort. She introduced him to a couple of guys who have special paper that allows them to raise ten dollar bills to hundreds. He saw them do it a few days ago, they handed him a true 100 that he took to the bank and verified. Convinced, he gave them his $1500 in savings to raise up into a fortune.

Unfortunately, the stove used to cook the bills explodes, a U.S. Marshall who never shows his badge storms in, and chaos ensues. Imabelle and the two currency magicians escape and leave Jackson with the Marshall. With the threat of prison hanging over him, Jackson steals money from his boss to bribe the Marshall to let him off.

When he pawed the money from his boss’s safe, he grabbed a few extra Cs, figured he would find the magicians to raise the money and pay back the old man. Only he can’t find them and gets the idea he’ll raise the funds by joining the longest running craps game in Harlem. By morning he’s broke and penitent. He goes to his twin brother, a man who dresses as a Sister of Mercy to come the poor out of their alms.

Sister Gabriel, as he’s known, looks into things and discovers the magicians and the Marshall are working together, and that Jackson’s girl. Imabelle, is likely in the racket with them. But what he also learns is that they have a trunk full of unprocessed gold with which they plan to con rich squares into investing in a Mexican gold mine. He wants that gold and figures Jackson can get the girl back—since that’s all he really wants—in exchange.

From there it’s a matter of criminal hijinx as Sister Gabriel and Jackson get the police involved and try to get their gold and their girl away from the three con men, who also happen to be wanted for murder in Mississippi. The cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grace Digger Jones, work with Sister Gabriel to arrest the cons, but their arrogance results in some splashed acid, no arrests, and a desperate square.

A Rage In Harlem originally published as For Love of Imabelle in 1957 is the first in Chester Himes’ Harlem Domestics Series. It’s a gritty crime story in which the black detectives play a minor, though ultimately victorious, role. It’s a quintessential display of black criminality, of hard boiled language, and bitterly ironic humor.

The titular characters of the series seem almost Keystonian in this novel, their hubris leading to injury and embarrassment. According to Jackson, “these were real detectives. But they were colored detectives just the same. And from what he’d heard about them they believed in shooting first and questioning the bodies afterward.” They are tough and they have to be tough as they’re black authority figures over blacks in a white world.

The story is really about Jackson, square that he is, and his innocent and gullible love of Imabelle, the southern femme fatale come north. Murders and mistakes and misguided love interweave throughout the story side by side with street wise characters who are immune to the ridiculous violence and inequality existent in Harlem of the 1950s.

The language is hard boiled. Maybe not quite what Hammet wrote, but still tough. In one instance Himes makes the following description:

“Black and white folks rubbed shoulders day and night, over the beer-wet bars, getting red-eyed and rambunctious from the ruckus juice and fist-fighting in the street between the passing cars. They sat side by side in the neon glare of the food factories, eating things from the steam tables that had no resemblance to food.”

He uses tough words and brutal speech to represent the vitality and danger of the black world. He doesn’t have much respect for whites, not really for Coffin Ed and Grave Digger at first. But by the end that seems to have settled a little and he gives them their due. This is, more than a detective story, a crime story that just happens to have detectives in it. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Four and a half stars. A fine example of Harlem rage and a damned good crime story to boot. Recommended for both audiences of crime fiction and more literary Renaissance literature.

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