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 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)
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 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.


  1. I have a really crisp copy of Gold Medal #717, For Love of Imabelle, and you're absolutely right -- I don't dare open it. I don't have many paperbacks like that, but I think early Chester Himes will do nothing but continue to appreciate.
    I came to the Himes books after seeing a bunch of blaxploitation films and I think I developed a taste for his brand of "keep it real and spontaneous, with lots of violence" writing. But at the same time he always seemed to me to be familiar with the conventions of Golden Age detective fiction; didn't bow down to them, but gave them full credit.

  2. I reviewed this one a month or so ago ( You can find the Berkley paperback reprint a little cheaper than the Avon. I don't know what the Library of America that includes this novel costs, but you get several novels at what's probably a decent price.

  3. Interesting about the cost of the cost of the 1950s and 1960s paperback originals. I don't mind paying a lot for a decent vintage paperback and I might or might not read it, but if I pay that much for a vintage paperback then I have to forgo some other books. Which might be OK since I have way too many unread books, vintage or not.

  4. I love Chester Himes! I haven't read this one yet. I think this one will be my next read.

  5. I'm a big fan of Himes, but I've yet to read them all. You managed to review one I haven't read yet. As much as I dig Ed and Jones, the background characters are what really make his books, I think.

    My review of The Big Gold Dream, from early this year:

  6. Ok, I looked up Carroll John Daly and find that I already had a couple of his stories in the Race Williams series hiding in the humungous pile. Plan to give them a read. Thanks. I had no idea Himes read this writer and he was always compared to Hammett and Chandler. so...thanks for the info.

  7. Been too long since I read Himes - must diog out my copy of A RAGE IN HARLEM I think - thanks John, great stuff as always.

  8. Never read Hines even when I was young and could take this sort of thing with much more equanimity. :) But still I like reading your take on things, John. Welcome back.

  9. I've read the Himes and really enjoyed them, the later books do become very political, thanks for the review.

    Carroll John Daly is a new one on me, another to add to the wish list. Have picked up another John Blackburn from your reviews and must get round to reading him. I've enjoyed some of his other books and tales.

    Thanks John,