Chester 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.
Rage 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.