A Look at Chester Himes and A Rage in Harlem
"Himes undertook to do for Harlem what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles." - Newsweek
To say Chester Himes is the Black Raymond Chandler would only serve to diminish his genius and undermine Chandler as a purveyor of the hardboiled crime genre.
I first fell in love with hardboiled crime novels after reading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler in a University English class. Throughout my university studies, it is also one of the few books I succeeded in reading in its entirety.
I loved the way Chandler created anti-heroes who, in the process of serving their forms of justice, were able to rationalize their misdeeds. Existing in this world is not always easy, and most of us have to navigate moral -and sometimes legal- grey areas to survive.
Characters like Carmen Sternwood, classic Femme Fatales, were sexy and intelligent. They were also manipulative and broken. The complexity of these characters spurred in me a new passion for the genre. I went on a bender. I did not limit myself to just books. I watched A Walk Among the Tombstones with the eye of someone deeply dedicated to understanding how elements of the movie harkened back to classic themes related to the genre.
Although I loved the genre, I could not ignore the lack of representation in the literary hardboiled crime genre. When a person-of-colour entered a story, they were usually secondary characters with personalities that stemmed from stereotypes. They did not have the same level of complexity as other characters and were often just immoral. This was true until I discovered Chester Himes. I was perusing the bookshelves of my local BMV, watching as an undercover store agent followed my every move, when I found an almost empty shelf. It held multiple copies of A Rage in Harlem.
The Story of Himes
Chester Himes was born in Jefferson City, Mo., US, on July 29, 1909, to Sandy Himes and Estelle Bomar Himes.¹ Himes' relationship with his dark-skinned father and light-skinned mother shaped his outlook on race, as did a seven-year prison sentence for armed robbery in 1929.²
Himes began to write while in prison. His work got published in several publications, including Esquire.² After his release, Himes went on to work different jobs in the publishing industry and eventually landed a position at the Ohio Writers’ Project.² His first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go got released in 1945. Himes continued to write over twenty books, the last of which, Blind Man With a Pistol, was published in 1969.²
A Rage in Harlem
Himes’ novels have inspired multiple live-action adaptations. The most notable adaptations are centered on his detective novels, which feature Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. The novel that kicks off this series of books is A Rage in Harlem. The novel touches on social issues such as the desperate measures disenfranchised people take when in crisis, the hypocrisy of the church, and how police brutality can breed mistrust and violence in a city.
A Rage in Harlem follows Jackson, a fat dark-skinned Black man who tries to make a stable life for himself and his woman, Imabelle. The novel begins with action. Jackson gets scammed by a con-man who said he could turn Jackson’s life savings, the paltry sum of $1,500, into hundreds of thousands of dollars, “That was all the money Jackson had in the world...And it hadn’t come easy".³ To avoid jail time, Jackson steals from his boss and further embroils himself in criminal acts for the opportunity to escape with Imabelle.
Jackson is doomed from the beginning. He was doomed from birth. As a twin, with a brother who lives in Harlem and helps Jackson out of his trouble for selfish reasons until his fated end, it is clear that neither brother would have had a chance to live life crime-free.
Jackson’s brother, Goldy, makes his living selling passes to heaven dressed as a nun named sister Gabriel.
Goldy’s alias provides him protection against the dangers of street life. People of Harlem seem to trust and respect the church and tend to leave Goldy alone. There is a moment in the novel when Goldy tries to get out of speaking to the police by using his identity as Sister Gabriel. When the cops question Sister Gabriel, she recites random scripture to confuse them until the police officers get tired and move on.
Imabelle, Jackson’s “high yellow” woman is beautiful, but her beauty is a blessing and a curse. It attracts men to her, and fools like Jackson end up wanting to care for her, but it does little to protect her from violence. It also does not change the preconceived perceptions the police have of Black women. Even the “coloured cops” have a negative view of Black people in Harlem.
Himes’ novel expresses the hatred he felt from the police. You can experience fear and tension in the interactions between the police and the residents of Harlem. These are feelings that reverberate in communities today. In the novel, the Black residents of Harlem are usually misdirecting the police to help someone else out. There is a moment when a man begins to answer a police officer's question truthfully but stops when another resident looks at him with disgust.
They also use the stereotypes the police have of them to their advantage. At one point, Jackson is able to escape from the police by pretending a random man is his father.
A Man Abroad
In the early 1950s, Himes moved to Paris after separating from his wife, Jean.⁴ Paris is where Himes continued his career as a writer and published a series of murder mystery novels set in Harlem, New York.²
Himes even won Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1958.² The Grand Prix de Littérature Policière is the most prestigious literary award for crime and detective fiction in France.²
Himes’ work is satirical, vivid and unapologetically real. His work is jarring at times, specifically when he describes murder. It seems that wherever he could, Himes imbued readers with visceral disgust. To say the Harlem in the novels was dirty is a gross understatement. It was a hotbed of crime and debauchery. This is evident after Goldy’s throat is cut.
“The flesh of the wide bloody wound turned back like bleeding lips, frothing blood. The sweet sickish perfume of fresh blood came up from the crap-smelling street, mingled with the foul tenement smell of Harlem.”⁵
In 1969, Himes moved to Spain with his second wife, journalist Lesley Packard. Himes later died in Spain in 1984 from Parkinson’s disease.⁴
Himes’ work lives on. It offers a new perspective in the hardboiled crime and detective genres that can resonate with readers today. A Rage in Harlem is gritty and dark with small moments of hope. Even though it seemed like Jackson was doomed to spend years of his life in prison, he manages to escape. Whether it is because he was an idiot or had a heart of gold or both, Jackson doesn’t get jail time and can reunite with Imabelle. This ending is bitter-sweet because it doesn’t guarantee that Jackson’s life has changed in any significant way.
Jackson's future is unknown, but I know that my future will now include more books by Chester Himes.
- A Rage in Harlem, pages 6-7
- A Rage in Harlem, pages 105-106