lunes, 12 de septiembre de 2011

A Rage in Harlem

A Rage in Harlem (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1991)
by Chester Himes
France, 1957

While it took me a good couple of years to finally get around to reading my second Himes title, it only took me about two minutes to lose myself in the pages of this frantic, violently funny crime caper.  The first in a series of novels featuring badass Harlem detective duo Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, A Rage in Harlem (originally titled For Love of Imabelle) actually spends far more time following the scams and counter scams swirling in the wake of gullible sucker Jackson after he's swindled out of his life savings by a team of con men who convince him that they can chemically transform his ten dollar bills into hundred dollar bills in his apartment oven.  Himes doesn't take his foot off the gas pedal long enough to flesh out the high-octane plot all that much, but in a novel where pace and atmosphere and a delight in the double cross are everything ("Crime doesn't pay," lectures a fake marshal at the tail end of an early shakedown [12]), there's plenty of descriptive glee to be found in the depiction of faces "glistening like an eight ball" (5), cross-dressing Sisters of Mercy imitators selling tickets to heaven to Harlem residents to feed their dope habits, and irreverent preachers who mutter "Lord save us from squares" when some of the more naive members of the congregation come to throw themselves on the Lord's mercy (137).  A fun goof all in all--but one in which a graphic throat-cutting scene and a complex take on race relations as viewed from a late-1950s "Negro" underworld perspective ratchet up the pre-Tarantino intensity levels unpredictably.  (

Chester Himes

A Rage in Harlem is my "mystery" selection for R.I.P. VI.  While I'm not sure how much it has in common with other R.I.P. mystery picks this year, I'm guessing that it's probably the only one with as fine a readers imbibing peril line as the one on page 54 in which Himes tells us that "the cold snowy February night was already getting liquored up."  Top that, cozy mystery bloggers!

15 comentarios:

  1. I have not read this one, but obviously should. Your highlights are equalled in the outrageous Cotton Comes to Harlem and the completely insane Blind Man with a Pistol.

  2. I've never read Himes, but he's higher on my list having read this post! Lord save us from squares, indeed.

  3. I've not heard of this book (or author) before, but your review makes it sound very intriguing: a "frantic, violently funny crime caper" sounds like just the thing.

  4. ha ha, I love the quote you included at the end!

  5. Ah, that is a great line! Wonderful review, love your way with words.

    This one sounds frenetic and funny and unlike anything I've read before. You've made me very curious.

  6. I d not heard of him til recently when I caught a bit on a radio show about him ,nice review richard I ve not read many books set in us in this time frame ,all the best stu

  7. *Amateur Reader: I actually saw the movie version of Cotton Comes to Harlem long before I even knew who Himes was, but the "problem" with his books is that they all sound interesting (by which I mean "outta control"). I suspect The Real Cool Killers will be the Himes that's next up for me, but it may be hard to overlook the "completely insane" label you've attached to the memorably titled Blind Man with a Pistol.

    *Emily: Himes is, how do I put this?, eminently quoteworthy. "Lord save us from squares" is a good, concise example of his non-square aesthetic, for sure.

    *Amanda: I've only read two books by the guy so far, but both were violent, violently funny, and entertaining. Not sure you'll enjoy him as much as I, of course, but at the very least you can expect an extreme change of pace from the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!

    *Kailana: Thanks for the visit! Suffice it to say that that quote cracked me up when I came upon it in the book and thus had to be included in the post somehow. Cheers!

    *Carl V.: Yeah, isn't Himes' quote a peach? I'm glad people are digging that line as much as I did, and thanks very much for the kind words about the review (that one was more fun than many others to write on account of the novel in question).

    *Stu: Thanks, my friend. I don't know much about Himes myself other than that my dad's always telling me that I should read his autobiography (a favorite of his, it would seem), but the weird thing about Himes' Harlem novels is that most of them were written in Paris and yet they feel so real in terms of time and place. The stories are so "insane," to borrow Amateur Reader's clinical description, though, that they often come off as surrealistic. Not your standard crime capers at all.

  8. It's been on my radar for years. Why I never got around to it eludes me. Now more than ever.

  9. There's something to be said for reading the Harlem books in something like their original order - the craziness will build and build.

    Blind Man with a Pistol basically dispenses with all of the usual police novel rigmarole. It is more of a metaphysical statement than a mystery.

    Then! Then! You're not even done. Himes was and is huge in France. So next is Swiss-Camerounian Simon Njami's Cercueil et Cie, in English as Coffin and Co., which actually takes Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones to Paris!

    And since they're already in Paris, Daniel Picouly wrote two novels taking them to - no, that can't be right. Someone with real French should read the descriptions of these novels at French Amazon.

  10. I read Himes unfinished and flat-out astonishing "Plan B" last year - in which African-Americans stage an armed uprising against whites. It's incredibly violent, funny and grim at the same time, and utterly fascinating. AR - I'd never heard of the Daniel Picouly books, but I'm now having a friend in France pick up a couple of them for me this week. I read the descriptions - they sound wild!

  11. I've not read Himes but you had me at "Crime doesn't pay" and the idea of scams and counter scams has me checking the library. Thank, Richard!

  12. Pre-Tarantino intensity sounds right up my ally. I'm adding Himes to my list. I'll take Amateur Reader's advice and try to read 'em in order. Hurray for violently funny entertainment!

  13. *Caroline: It's a savagely entertaining and super quick read. That seems to be Himes M.O.

    *Amateur Reader: Thanks a bunch--that's quite the annotated bibliography you've put together there! In fact, I almost dashed over to the foreign language bookstore on my dinner break last night to see if they had either of those Picouly titles in stock. They sound like a riot, n'est-ce pas?

    *Scott: I hadn't heard of Plan B before, but I have no problem imagining it's as intense as you say. Lucky you having your friend pick up those Picouly novels for you--that sounds like the kind of, ahem, historical fiction I can actually get excited about!

    *Gavin: You're very welcome--hope your library stocks a book or two by the guy. By the way, that "crime doesn't pay" line is typical of Himes' streetwise brand of humor.

    *Sarah: What Amateur Reader and Scott (Seraillon) have to say about three Himes books I haven't read make me eager to keep on reading the guy in or out of sequence. The problem that many readers will encounter, I suspect, is that many bookstores or smaller libraries will only stock 1-2 Himes titles rather than an entire selection. Worth seeking them out, though, and hurray for that entertainment indeed!

  14. I thought I'd take up Amateur Reader's suggestion and roughly translate the plot of one of the Picouly novels, "L'Enfant Leopard." This will be more of a distillation of the Amazon description than a direct translation, but here goes: October, 1793. Marie-Antoinette, in her cell within the Concierge, awaits execution. Meanwhile, outside, with mere hours left to spare the queen's life, a search is on for a mysterious mixed-race child. Some want him protected; others want him killed. Are the rumors true, that he's the son of some grand lady of the court, perhaps even the queen herself? To turn this story into a crazy fictional romp one only needs invite author Daniel Picouly. Intrigues abound, fortunes turn as in a novel by Alexander Dumas. The two black detectives in charge of searching for the child in a bizarre Harlem located behind the Luxembourg Palace, are Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, straight from the universe of Chester Himes. This delightful novel, as fantastical as it is erudite, and which paints a moving portrait of Marie-Antoinette as assassinated mother and foreigner turned into scapegoat, won for its author the Prix Renaudot in 1999.

  15. *Scott: Belated but sincere thanks for undertaking a translation I would've been too lazy to do myself. In related news, that book just keeps sounding better and better!