The Father of Black American Crime Stories is Born Today


Chester Himes reversed



On this day in 1909 Chester Himes, “the father of black American crime writing,” was born. Although Himes is mostly read for his “Harlem Domestic” novels — Cotton Comes to Harlem, A Rage in Harlem and six others featuring the detectives “Coffin” Ed Jones and “Gravedigger” Johnston — a recent flurry of attention may change that. The End of a Primitive and Yesterday Will Make You Cry, two novels deemed too sexual or violent when they first appeared, have been reissued in their original, uncut form as W. W. Norton “Old School Books. Add to this two recent full-length biographies, and Himes may be on the verge of rediscovery, twenty years after his death.

Judging by the last sentence in My Life of Absurdity (vol. II of Himes’s autobiography), such posthumous fame would seem to confirm his own view of his life:

For all its inconsistencies, its contradictions, its humiliations, its triumphs, its failures, its tragedies, its hurts, its ecstasies and its absurdities; that’s my life — the third generation out of slavery.

A similar emphasis on absurdity and racism characterizes many of Himes’s books. On the last page of Blind Man With a Pistol, the last book in the Harlem cycle, Grave Digger explains what little he can to head office as the streets erupt in racial violence:

An hour later Lieutenant Anderson had Grave Digger on the radio-phone. “Can’t you men stop that riot?” he demanded.
“It’s out of hand, boss,” Grave Digger said.
“All right, I’ll call for reinforcements. What started it?”
“A blind man with a pistol.”
“What’s that?”
“You heard me, boss.”
“That don’t make any sense.”
“Sure don’t.”

Blindness and rage also entered Himes’s personal life early, along with absurd mischance and mistake. At the age of thirteen he played a role in the accidental blinding of his teenaged brother, an event which triggered lifelong guilt and anger:
We pulled into the emergency entrance of a white people’s hospital. White clad doctors and attendants appeared. I remember sitting in the back seat with Joe watching the pantomime being enacted in the car’s bright lights. A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.

As a seventeen-year-old busboy, Himes was seriously injured when he fell down an elevator shaft. As a freshman at Ohio State, he fell into a Roaring 20s lifestyle, and when he was expelled fell again into petty crime. Two suspended sentences only encouraged him to trade up his .32 handgun for a Colt .44 that “looked like a hand cannon and would shoot hard enough to kill a stone.” His next job was armed robbery, an elderly Cleveland couple’s Cadillac and jewelry. The Caddie got stuck in the mud, and when the pawnshop owner went into the back room with the jewelry Himes just stood there: “I suspected he was calling the police…. But I couldn’t run; never could run.” Handcuffed at the feet and hands, he was hung upside down from a door and pistol-whipped into a confession.

The anger and absurdity continued throughout his time at Ohio State Penitentiary — the one convict who was murdered for not passing the bread, the two who killed each other over whether Paris was in France or France in Paris, the 330 who died in a fire, most of them trapped in their overcrowded cells. But Himes learned to write in prison, and channel enough of his anger into plot and theme that he was paroled after serving seven-and-a-half years of his twenty-five year sentence. Few of his serious or social protest novels were widely-read, but when he found his crime-novel formula — he wrote the eight Harlem books in twelve years — he was a popular hit. This was especially true in Europe, where Himes had chosen to live for racial reasons. Here he felt he could walk down the street with his head up and, later in life, see bookstore placards describing him as “The Greatest Find in American Crime Fiction Since Raymond Chandler.”

Written by Steve King


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