I ran across Chester Himes while I was looking for read-alikes online for Elmore Leonard. I didn’t honk much of it at the time, as there were other authors more appealing and higher up the list. But I did note that he was black. And later, when I saw his name associated with James Baldwin I was intrigued. It wasn’t until I started communicating with a professor about the possibility of a PhD on Creative Writing that these passing researches came to mind. I looked up Himes and discovered he wrote, in the 1950s and 1960s a series of eight novels about two black detectives on Harlem.
This caught my attention immediately. Those who know me since I regained my sanity know that I am very much interested in the Harlem Renaissance and the music, literature and art that came out of that movement. While Himes was a little after the fact, he was heavily influenced by the movement and many critics include him beside Baldwin and other, slightly later writers.
More than just a black writer at the mid-century, Himes appealed to me for his crime fiction credentials. I had recently decided to pursue crime fiction as a possibility for publication, and I wanted to combine my interests of black history and crime. Chester Himes Harlem Domestic detective series was the first detective series following black detectives. Walter Mosley would later follow in his footsteps, famously, but Himes was the first.
I was hooked.
Himes was born in 1909 Missouri to academic and religious parents. He grew up in the south. When his brother was refused treatment at because he was black, Himes became bitter and moved towards a conflict with the racial hierarchy of America. Because of his parents’ educations he was educated. A trait that would late serve him well, but not until he went to prison. In 1928 he was sent up for armed robbery and sentenced to 20 to 25 years.
Soon he turned to what would deliver him from the violence of his Ohio prison. He began to write. Starting with short stories he began to publish in national markets, including Esquire and others. This brought him respect from other cons and the guards and contributed to his early release. Soon thereafter he met Langston Hughes and other influential publishing magnates. He published his first book If He Hollers Let Him Go in 1945. One more and he moved to France.
My best friend is enamored of the Paris of Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald. I, on the other hand, am interested in the Paris of a couple decades later occupied by Baldwin, Himes, and Richard Wright. That sounds a lot more textured and powerful than a bunch of white folks drinking and writing and feeling oppressed for no particular reason other than they don’t have much money.
But it was there, in France, that Himes published For Love of Imabelle. The crime fiction, his first in that genre, would be the first of eight novels with the characters of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, two hard as rocks detectives who happen to be black and working on Harlem. From 1957-1969 he published this first in France and then again in America.
Also in France, he married a white woman who would care for him in his later life after he suffered a stroke and they moved to Spain. He died in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease.
I’m still new to Himes, but in furtherance of my pursuit of crime, I can’t help but think that it is essential for me—who wants to write on the black side of the genre—to read these eight novels. As such, I’m going to read and review all eight of them in the coming month. I’ll post each review here as I do so and hopefully, by the time I’m finished, I’ll have a much greater understanding of how the black world views crime fiction, and how that view influences the characters that populate their world.
I’m excited for this adventure of spending a month in Himes’ Harlem where I’ll get to know Coffin Ed and Grace Digger, who, as Himes described them in his first novel in the series:
“Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger’s would bury it.”
Hard boiled fun with race all mixed in. Welcome to this blog’s month after African American History Month celebration of Chester Himes and his Harlem Domestic Series.