Past Times Old Crimes

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes

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himes-2116db9ad0df910cbdadfafa1fafd5dc7c5bf7cc-s800-c85Chester Himes was born into a middle-class family in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1909. His parents both worked in education. When Himes was 12, his brother was blinded in an accident, and was denied treatment by the Jim Crow Laws (extensive segregation in all public services) and this shaped the way Himes viewed American society at the time. The family moved to Ohio, and after his parents divorced, Himes fell among thieves and in 1928 took part in an armed robbery, for which he was sentenced to 25 years hard labour. In prison, he began to write feature stories and articles for magazines. In 1936 he was released into the custody of his mother and, while working dead-end jobs, he continued to write. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s to write for movies but again, he felt the heavy hand of racial discrimination. He finally gave upon America, and moved to Paris in the 1950s. He never returned to America and died in Spain in 1984.

A Rage In Harlem was published in 1957, but with the title For Love of Imabelle. It was the first in a series of books featuring New York detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, but it is a while before they take the stage. The book tells the tale of a deluded man named Jackson who, for the love of his woman, Imabelle, is dumb enough to fall for a scheme which is a kind of mid twentieth century alchemy. All you have to do is to give a bunch of ten dollar bills to ‘the man’ and he will, by an amazing feat of chemistry (it involves stuffing the notes in to the chimney of a stove) turn each ten into a hundred.

Needless to say, the advertised miracle doesn’t take place, and Jackson is left in a whole heap of trouble. Johnson and Jones – Jones only appears briefly in a violent fight – are largely peripheral to the action, but they were to play more central roles in future books in the series. The men who swindled Jackson are, however, not simply con-men. They are violent criminals wanted for murder in Mississippi, and for them, killing is simply an tool of the trade.

ch011Rage In Harlem is a very angry book, and the psychological scars borne by Himes are unhealed and very near the surface. There is a solid core of what appears to be slapstick comedy, but it is brutal, surreal and venomous. The mother of all car chase takes place when Jackson – an undertaker’s chauffeur – steals a hearse to shift what he thinks is a trunk full of gold ore (another scam). He is unaware that it also contains the dead body of his brother who, by the way, makes a living by dressing as a nun and soliciting alms while reciting bogus quotations from The Book of Revelations:

“Underneath the trunk black cloth was piled high. Artificial flowers were scattered in garish disarray. A horseshoe wreath of artificial lilies had slipped to the back. Looking out from the arch of white lilies was a black face. The face was looking backward from a head-down position, resting on the back of the skull. A white bonnet sat atop a gray wig which had fallen askew. The face wore a horrible grimace of pure evil. White-walled eyes stared at the four gray men with a fixed, unblinking stare. Beneath the face was the huge purple-lipped wound of a cut throat.”

For all Jackson’s gullibility, Himes clearly admires the fat little man’s spirit:

“She …. looked him straight in the eyes with her own glassy, speckled bedroom eyes.
The man drowned.
When he came up, he stared back, passion cocked, his whole black being on a live-wired edge. Ready! Solid ready to cut throats, crack skulls, dodge police, steal hearses, drink muddy water, live in a hollow log and take any rape-fiend chance to be once more in the arms of his high-yellow heart.”

Himes is less charitable about other chancers and frauds in the city. When Jackson makes his getaway in the hearse:

“Pedestrians were scattered in grotesque fight. A blind man jumped over a bicycle trying to get away.”

And this is Harlem in the morning:

“Later, the downtown office porters would pour from the crowded flats in a steady stream, carrying polished leather briefcases stuffed with overalls to look like businessmen, and buy the Daily News to read on the subway.”

The astonishing thing is that I can’t find any record of Himes living in or spending time in New York, let alone Harlem. He wrote the book while he was living among other exiles – like James Baldwin – in Paris. The French loved this and his later books, but back home in America, apart from literary circles on the West Coast, readers were not interested. A Rage In Harlem has been reissued by Penguin Modern Classics and will be available on 25th March.

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PAST TIMES-OLD CRIMES . . . The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

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CRIME FICTION HAS A DISTINGUISHED LITERARY PEDIGREE and although the label has sometimes been used in a pejorative way, wherever and whenever people read books, CriFi will continue to entertain, shock and engage readers. LP Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Yes, CriFi from times past can be very different. Language changes, as do social perceptions. But one thing remains constant. People do bad things to each other, and there will always be (mostly) decent people, either officers of the law or concerned individuals, who believe that actions have consequences, and that bad deeds should not go unpunished. In this series, expect to read about old favourites but also novels which have, for whatever reason, slipped below the radar.


The locked room mystery and its variants – a murder that could not have possibly been committed by human hand because of the aforesaid bolted and barred door, or some other restraint – are an endearing and enduring feature of crime fiction. Not so frequent these days, true, but occasionally modern writers take up the trusty sword and use it to good effect. Witness Christopher Fowler’s latest – and delightful –  Bryant & May mystery, Hall Of Mirrors. An early – but not the earliest – example of the genre is the 1892 novel The Big Bow Mystery, written by Israel Zangwill (below).

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Zangwill was the child of a Latvian father and a Polish mother. He was expensively educated in the best British schools, and became widely admired abroad, particularly in America. He was also that rarest of beasts – a social campaigner with a wicked sense of humour.

BBMThe ‘Bow’ in the title is not some fabric adornment, but the working class district in East London. If you were born within earshot of its church bells, then you were said to be a true Cockney. It’s December, and the nineteenth century is on its last legs. A dense morning fog, aided and abetted by the smoke of a million coal fires, swirls around the mean streets.

“From Bow even unto Hammersmith there draggled a dull wretched vapour, like the wraith of an impecunious suicide come into a fortune immediately after the fatal deed.”

At 11 Grover Street, however, the landlady is unconcerned. Zangwill describes her thus:

“Mrs Drabdump was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress. She went about her work quite as cheerlessly as usual,”

bigbowmysteryilloThe formidable lady has overslept, but after lighting the downstairs fire, she remembers to wake one of the lodgers. Arthur Constant is an idealist, and a campaigner for workers’ rights. She bangs on his bedroom door, then makes the day’s first pot of tea. Taking a tray upstairs, she calls again. Still no response. She peeps through the keyhole, but the key is firmly in place. As she pounds on the door once again, she has a premonition that something is very, very wrong. So she summons her neighbour, the redoubtable retired detective Mr George Grodman. He batters down the door, which was locked and bolted from the inside, and is forced to cover Mrs Drabdump’s eyes from the horrors within…

Constant’s demise is investigated by the coroner, and his verdict sets up the mystery beautifully. He explains.

““It seems clear that the deceased did not commit suicide. It seems equally clear that the deceased was not murdered,”

What follows is a hugely entertaining journey through the social and legal conventions of late Victorian society. The cast includes a scolding wife, an alcoholic poet, a bumbling policemen and – in a masterstroke cameo appearance – even William Ewart Gladstone. The Dickensian names like the policeman Edward Wimp and Mr Spigot QC add a sparkle to the dialogue. Zangwill wrote the book in 14 days and it was serialised in the The Star, an evening newspaper already well known for printing letters signed by Jack The Ripper. The serialisation meant the author was able to engage in lively public exchanges with readers as to the identity of the killer, which must have been like a wonderful early version of the modern day phone-in, interactive TV, or even Twitter.

220px-Diary_of_a_Nobody_firstSome contemporary critics were puzzled and irritated by Zangwill’s satirical style. They felt that there was no place for comedy in the tale of a young man, dead in his bed, his throat cut from ear to ear. The exchanges in the court scenes between pompous officials and outspoken ‘low life’ types on the jury are delightfully reminiscent of similar encounters between Mr Pooter and disrespectful tradesmen in that classic of English humour, The Diary of A Nobody.

Zangwill may not have been the first to use the humour of cruelty, nor will he be the last. However, in the trial scene – which takes up most of the second half of the book – he takes aim at almost every social convention and literary stereotype available to him, and his arrows find the target every time. Thirdly, and most importantly, he fools us with the solution to the murder of Arthur Constant. I missed several clues and I suspect, unless you have the most forensic of minds, you may well miss them too, as Zangwill is a master of misdirection. Some years after the publication of The Big Bow Mystery he added an introduction which is a little masterpiece in its own right, full of elegant use of language and subtle humour. He says:

“The only person who has ever solved The Big Bow Mystery is myself. This is not paradox, but plain fact.”

If this brief review of an enchanting novel has whetted your appetite, you will be delighted to know that you can download a digital version for the princely sum of £0.00 by clicking the image below.

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