Saturday, September 27, 2014

1958: The Real Cool Killers - Chester Himes

US first edition (Avon, 1959)
"The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books."

-- Chester Himes in The Several Lives of Chester Himes (Univ Press of Mississippi, 1997)

I wonder if Chester Himes would be at all surprised that the world he created, one he insisted was not at all a real depiction of Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s, has manifested itself as something all too real in the 21st century. Gangs of teenage thugs now flourish more than ever, shootings have become almost a daily occurrence, and indifference for human life and disrespect for any kind of authority trumps all civil behavior.  These are the kinds of events and symptoms of Harlem that Himes held up to ridicule.  His gang of teenagers who call themselves The Real Cool Moslems" dress up in robes and turbans pretending to be Arabs.  People are routinely murdered just so a new gun can be tried out. Young girls allow themselves to be humiliated and insulted just so they will be paid attention to by boys.  I guess it was funny almost fifty years ago.  I just kind of shook my head at how things haven't changed at all.

The Real Cool Killers (first published in France as Il Pleut des Coups Durs in 1958) are anything but cool. The gang Himes creates is made up of a ragtag bunch of bored teenagers led by an arrogant kid calling himself Sheik who taunts and insults everyone around him. A little man in the ghetto who becomes a big man when he has a zip gun or a knife in his hand. Shedding their ghetto identities as they don their ludicrous outfits the "Moslems" all prefer to go by ridiculous nicknames in an attempt to further escape into a world of their own fashioning. The Sheik surrounds himself with an army of sycophants called Choo-Choo, Inky, Camel Mouth, Slow Motion and Punkin Head. Their girls are Sissie, Good Booty and Sugartit. Sugartit turns out to be Evelyn Johnson, daughter to Coffin Ed Johnson, one of the two Harlem policemen who are Himes' series characters.  Johnson's partner is Grave Digger Jones whose first name is not revealed in this book. I wonder if it ever is. The two are not your typical policemen and make a strong contrast to the uptight rule-following white cops who are their colleagues and superiors.

The opening of The Real Cool Killers is a whopper. Within the first four pages a barroom brawl breaks out and their is a knife attack, a couple of shootings and someone ends up with their hand chopped off by than very angry ax-wielding bartender.  The police are called in when a white man ends up shot.

UK reprint (Allison & Busby, 1985)
Coffin Ed it turns out is still getting over an attack that left his face a ruinous horror. Some punk threw acid on him and he's understandably very touchy about anyone throwing any type of liquid at him again.  When he beats one of the gang members after a a bottle of perfume is thrown at him he is suspended from duty and disappears for the remainder of the book. We are left with Grave Digger Jones, even more intolerant of the inhabitants of Harlem who he finds to be an ignorant bunch of brutes and savages.  He loses his patience, frequently exploding in violence, slapping and beating the gang members when he gets nothing from them but feigned ignorance of the shooting and violence at the bar, loads of lies peppered with plenty of swearing.  The word "mother-raper" appears on nearly every page and I'm sure it was a toned down version of more commonly used slang of the real Harlem.

Grave Digger receives little help from his fellow cops while Coffin Ed is out of commission. He is left to his wits and his brawn in trying to figure out how a white man ended up shot dead when the only gun on the scene can only fire blanks. It's sort of an impossible crime in the setting of a hardboiled -- very hardboiled -- crime novel. That was a pleasant surprise for me. Even more surprising were the characters who at first seem like cartoonish caricatures and stereotypes leftover from an Octavus Roy Cohen comic novel. As the book progresses. however, it is clear that Himes is using these very real stereotypical characters as foils for his intolerance for the "anything goes" lifestyle of the ghetto. His Harlem is filled with people who in order to have any decent life will use and manipulate anyone and everything. Morality goes out the window, crime is almost second nature to some of them. As Grave Digger says to one of the superior white characters: "If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime ridden slums, it's my job to see that you are safe." Grave Digger will not abide pretense of any sort.  Both he and Coffin Ed tell it like it is.

French paperback reprint (circa mid 1970s)
Himes never really set out to write crime fiction. While living in his self-imposed exile in France along with other Harlem expatriate writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright he was approached by publisher Marcel Duhamel who was championing the publication of American crime fiction in French translation, specifically that of the hard boiled school. Himes confessed he hadn't a clue how he was going to write a hardboiled novel and Duhamel told him it was simple: begin with a bizarre incident and then imitate the writing of Hammett and Chandler. You can't fault him for following that bit of advice. Himes has been compared to those two kings of hardboiled crime, but I'd say his real influence is the most hardboiled writer of all -- Carroll John Daly.  Himes himself has confessed that Daly's stories were a big draw for him when he was addicted to reading pulp magazines while in prison during the late 1940s.

All of Himes' books, both his crime novels and his other mainstream fiction, are readily available in a variety of reprint editions. The 1950s and 1960s paperback originals from Avon tend to be priced extravagantly these days due to his new place of honor in the Crime Fiction Hall of Fame. In looking for images of the first edition Avon paperback I saw prices ranging from $16 for a reading copy to $75 for a VG+ copy. If you spent that kind of money on a nearly pristine copy you'd probably never want to open the darn thing.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Please Stand By...

Ridiculously busy this week and probably for the next month or so...

I have an essay for today's Friday Forgotten Book meme but it's unfinished and I don't like posting essays in one version and then later updating it a few hours later. Usually people don't return to read the full review. So instead I'll alert the few regular readers of this blog to come back later tonight (or tomorrow) when I will have my weekly Friday's Forgotten Book review ready for all.

It will also be my book for the 1958 Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Rich Westwood at Past Offenses. It happens to be the first book I've ever read by a writer who I have been interested in trying out for a long time -- Chester Himes. And it was quite an eye opener. Not at all what I expected. In fact, very, VERY modern for 1958. Of course it was published first in France so Himes was allowed to be more free with his language and attitude. "More anon" ...as they used to say in the Elizabethan funny papers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

FFB: Act of Fear - Michael Collins

Act of Fear (1966) is the first book in a series of private eye novels featuring Dan Fortune, the one-armed detective created by Dennis Lynds under his "Michael Collins" pseudonym. This is the first I've read of Fortune and so I can't speak for the other novels but his origin of how he lost his arm when he was a teenage hooligan and why he's reluctant to tell the truth about it provides a fascinating basis for who Dan Fortune becomes in his adult years. The setting for the most part is 1960s Chelsea in lower west side Manhattan and Lynds paints an eye-opening portrait of that neighborhood long before it was turned into a gentrified haven for well-to-do New Yorkers.

Fortune's client in this story is not the typical client any private eye is used to. He's Pete Vitanza, a young man hooked on fancy sports cars and devoted to his best friend Jo-Jo Olson who has disappeared. Vitanza is worried it might have something to do with some tough guys who were in the neighborhood a few days ago. Pete doesn't have a lot of money but he's willing to pay Fortune and he pleads his case giving some hazy reasons why he's avoiding the police. It's enough to convince Fortune to take the case, albeit begrudgingly. Soon Dan Fortune finds that Jo-Jo's skipping town is tied to the mugging of a cop and the murder of a showgirl. And that Pete has a lot more on his mind than seeming loyalty for a missing friend. The engaging plot takes Fortune to some seedy night clubs sporting names like Monte's Kat Klub and The Blue Cellar, a mechanic's garage, and finally to Flamingo, Florida where he confronts his quarry only to learn he's been followed by some New York heavies.

Dan Fortune is one of the new breed of private eye that started to appear in the late 1950s. He's not an out an out tough guy. He's got a lot of humanity and he genuinely cares about people. The book is filled with his philosophical musings about the effect of crime on a neighborhood, how growing up in tough unsympathetic Chelsea can harden a person. We learn of his own teen age life as a juvenile delinquent, the consequences of his actions, and the loss of his arm that is a constant reminder of his past. Even with all the thuggery and villainy from the bad guys Fortune still takes to the time to understand why they became such rotten apples.

I especially liked this observation:
Maybe under pressure we all revert to what is easy, to what we have rejected in our lives. The way a gentle man will often become the most violent when violence is forced on him. As if the thing rejected has been lurking all the time and waiting for its chance to burst out when our painfully constructed rational defenses are down.
Lynds has said in an interview with Ed Lynskey: "I did not set out to write a detective series, but I decided I wanted to write books that probed into the society we live in. We all must relate to others and how we do that determines the kind of society, country, world and universe we will have." Act of Fear gives you a lot to think about and I'm eager to revisit Dan Fortune and get a few more wise words from this world-weary but wholly likeable private eye with a soul.

For more about Dennis Lynds and his writing career see this website and be sure to visit the Dan Fortune page at Thrilling Detective website for the full list of books and more insight into this great fictional detective.

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This fulfills the "Book written by a writer using a pseudonym" for the Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge (space R5). I haven't  forgotten my pledge to fill both cards! I'm just slowing down a bit in my posts.

Monday, September 15, 2014

FLASH FICTION: Come Like Shadows, So Depart!

Better late than never. Yvette at "in so many words..." issued a Flash Fiction Challenge to come up with a short short story inspired by one of three paintings she found. The sotries were to have been posted yesterday, September 14. We took a sudden trip and I was away from the computer all day. Didn't have a chance to upload my story along with the painting. But enough excuses... Without further ado, here is my contribution.

Come Like Shadows

Sorcery’s a bitch. Especially when you’re an amateur like me. My mistake was being too curious, too ambitious, not patient enough. What’s that piece of advice your schoolteachers always direct at the impatient, hyperactive students in the class – take your time and you’ll make less mistakes. Haste makes waste, right? In my case haste made a monkey of my girlfriend. Literally.

She was a sucker for strange jewelry. That’s really what started all the trouble. Never satisfied with a diamond ring or stud earrings or a simple necklace. No, not Amelia. To her a tennis bracelet was literally just that – a bracelet made up of a fine gold mesh tennis net with charms shaped liked rackets and balls. I’m surprised she didn’t want the umpire sitting in his chair as well as a couple of ball boys. She was always adding to her collection and the more bizarre the better. She was attracted to Egyptians bangles with carved hieroglyphs, amulets inspired by medieval mythological creatures and brooches shaped like dragonflies. Insects were really big with her for a couple of months. Somehow they became more alluring less alien once they were bejeweled and bedazzled. But when she got hooked on endangered species inspired jewelry I really had to put an end to it.

And why sorcery? Surely there was a simpler way to get her off her eccentric jewelry addiction. Well, you see I sort of was responsible for that too. OK, I was responsible for that. Let me own up to the whole mess right now. She never paid me any attention and I made her like me. But as usual with my adventures in potion making I improvised and the whole thing backfired. What started out as an attraction potion took on a different dimension because of my ad libbing with the formula as well as Amelia’s unpredictable behavior. I was supposed to hand her the charmed object and a say a certain phrase but no -- Amelia couldn't wait. We're a lot alike that way -- impatient and demanding. She grabbed it out of my hand and well, now I not only have a devoted girlfriend I have devoted girlfriend who demands that I give her odd pieces of jewelry. And to counteract an unnatural behavior like this, one that isn’t of her choosing, I have to resort to more magic. So I started more experimenting. Before I could find the solution to that mistake another one occurred.

To be honest she brought it on herself. Yes, she did. She barged right into my alchemy lab after one of our hedonistic nights on the town. She was more than a little tipsy on those foo foo cocktails she loves more than her gaudy jewelry. You know those concoctions with flavored vodka. Geez, whatever happened to good ol’ fashioned Old Fashioneds or a plain gin and tonics? But I digress... Her eyes headed straight for a transmogrification figurine I was working on for one of my irritating neighbors. She chittered and screamed like a friggin' monkey and I was ready to turn her into one. Amelia sees that golden figurine shaped like a monkey and she had to have it. Right up her alley, right? Endangered species and "cute as a puppy" like she says all the time. Before I could knock the cursed thing out of her hand I watched as her human shadow morphed into the shape and form of a capuchin monkey. Tail growing out of her designer gown and Amelia disappearing into the fabric till she was chattering and screeching like my annoying neighbor next door. There she was wailing and clawing at her dress trying to figure out what the hell just happened to her. And me wishing I could just chain her to an organ grinder like some prop in a 1930s screwball comedy. My life had become a screwball comedy. All thanks to my inept attempts at black magic. I looked at this absurd picture of me and Amelia and saw exactly the opposite. It was Amelia who really made a monkey out of me. And not for the first time.

Yeah sorcery’s a bitch. What kills me is it took me six months to get all the proper ingredients for that charm. And now it’s going to take me another half a year to get another batch of the same stuff. You know how I had to rack my brains to come up with a clever way to record the sound of a cat’s footsteps? It involved a xylophone and a super sensitive reel-to-reel tape recorder. A reel to reel! P.S. That was harder to find than the damn xylophone. I may have to cut corners again and to hell with the consequences.

Aw, who am I kidding? I learned my lesson the hard way. Now I’m burdened with trying to gather up all the ingredients needed to turn Amelia back into a normal jewelry addicted young woman before her appetite for tropical fruits transforms my home into a subsidiary warehouse for Chiquita and Dole. Without the aid of sorcery. This time I'm following the directions to the letter. No improvising. No substitutes. No ad libbing. 100% genuine ingredients and no cheating whatsoever this time.

Which reminds me, now that you be heard this whole crazy story –

You don’t happen to know where I might find a genuine witch’s mummy, do you?