|US first edition (Avon, 1959)|
-- 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 replete with knife attack, a couple of shootings and a hand dismemberment by a very angry ax-wielding bartender. The police are called in when a white man ends up shot.
|UK reprint (Allison & Busby, 1985)|
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)|
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.