The Magazine

Black Mystery

The life and work of Chester Hines

May 28, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 35 • By JON L. BREEN
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In 1926, a teenage busboy in Cleveland's Wade Park Manor Hotel opened an elevator door, stepped through without looking, and fell forty feet. A half century later, an American novelist in Spain, watching his wife change a tire, backed his wheelchair off the road and tumbled down into the ditch. Like snapshots, these two accidents that happened to Chester Himes capture his character -- both as a man who rarely considered the consequences of his actions, and as a writer who filled his fiction with comic violence and unprovoked mishaps.

Born in 1909, Chester Himes is a major African-American writer. But in a typical irony, the author of ambitious mainstream novels for prestigious publishers is best remembered for a series of paperback mystery stories. Himes's detective team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, tough Harlem cops and dedicated family men, first appeared in For Love of Imabelle (1957), written at the invitation of Marcel Duhamel, editor of the French publisher Gallimard's crime fiction imprint La S rie Noire. Seven more volumes followed, ending with Blind Man With a Pistol (1969). After Himes's death in 1984, a ninth book appeared, the unfinished Plan B (1993) -- in which, like a slapstick version of the young Himes in the elevator, Coffin Ed injures himself walking into an open manhole.

Now, in Chester Himes: A Life, James Sallis has produced a superior new account of Himes's life and work. In Sallis's pages there emerges a picture of a charming, well-mannered, handsome, articulate, and funny man, who was also difficult, deeply bitter, and given to violent bursts of temper. Serious and hardworking in his writing, he was often irresponsible in his personal life.

Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, the youngest of three brothers. His parents were well educated, middle class, and, in their differing ways, ambitious. But they were also unhappy, torn by conflict. His light-skinned mother was the more militant, resenting white people and regarding her accommodating husband as an Uncle Tom with a "slave mentality." Himes's brother Joseph was blinded in a freak accident in 1923, an incident for which Chester felt unreasonable guilt. Following his own hotel accident, in which he suffered serious back injuries, and an unsuccessful student career at Ohio State University, Himes served a term for armed robbery in the Ohio State Penitentiary from 1929 until his parole in 1936. While in prison, he began selling short stories to Negro periodicals, and in 1934 he became a contributor to Esquire (his first articles carrying the byline of his prisoner number, 59623).

Though Himes claimed he knew little about mystery fiction before he began producing it himself, he had read writers such as Dashiell Hammett in Black Mask and other pulp magazines while in prison. Indeed, his detective team of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger had precursors in the early story "He Knew," which Himes published in Abbott's Weekly and Illustrated News in 1933 (a story missing from the 1991 Collected Stories of Chester Himes). Prison was clearly the turning point in Himes's life -- though Himes, as Sallis notes, devotes only six pages to his incarceration in his two volumes of memoirs, The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976).

Married shortly after his release, Himes held many jobs in the years that followed, most of them menial (apart from a stint with a writers' project in Ohio). Even after he became a published novelist, when Himes sought other employment to make ends meet, the best day jobs open to him were as a janitor or servant. As late as 1955, after returning briefly from Europe, he worked as a porter at an Automat in New York.

When Himes and his wife migrated to California in 1941, he found a society more malignantly racist than the one he had left in the Midwest. On the verge of employment as a script reader at Warner Brothers, he was rejected because Jack Warner didn't "want no niggers on this lot." Himes's West Coast experience resulted in his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), an uncomfortably realistic depiction of a proud black man's lot in wartime Los Angeles. Its psychological insights and the detailed depiction of the shipyards background recall the work of James M. Cain. According to Sallis, it was originally conceived as a mystery novel "in which whites were being killed apparently at random all about L.A."

The controversial book, which seemed on the brink of bestsellerdom until it was apparently torpedoed by its own publisher, Doubleday, considered aspects of black American life that were seldom openly discussed, including social strata based on skin color, black anti-Semitism, and the complex attraction of black men and white women. Bob Jones, the tragic central figure in If He Hollers Let Him Go, represents an irony of the past century's racial strife: For all their determination to rediscover pre-slavery cultural roots, African Americans have much more in common with other Americans than with Africans. Jones believes in America and its ideals, desperately wants to embrace the American dream, but finds himself blocked. While not even whites have complete control over their lives, Jones believes, Negroes have none at all. It falls to his light-skinned girlfriend
to make the case for accommodation, and Himes is fair enough (and conflicted enough) to write her an eloquent defense.

Himes's political views are hard to pin down, because his commitment to unvarnished truth was greater than his ability to follow any particular ideology. He wrote in The Quality of Hurt, "Reactionaries hate the truth and the world's rulers fear it; but it embarrasses the liberals, perhaps because they can't do anything about it." Communism in those days attracted many black writers and artists (including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes) by talking a good game against racism. But Himes soon realized how little real concern the Communists had for blacks -- and he used his second novel, Lonely Crusade (1947), to satirize the Communist party in America.

Himes would later claim that a cabal of Communists, outraged by the book, systematically destroyed his literary career in the United States. It's true that Lonely Crusade was excoriated by the Communist press, but the reviews from mainstream media were not nearly as hard as Himes remembered. Still, the novel had the problem and the virtue of offending not only the extreme left wing but nearly everyone on the political and racial spectrum. Himes's desire to blame a conspiracy is understandable: In a single morning, two department store book signings and an appearance with influential radio personality Mary Margaret McBride were canceled.

Some European Communists continued to celebrate Himes after the party in America had turned on him. But he remained firmly anti-Communist. In a 1970 German radio interview, transcribed in Michel Fabre and Robert Skinner's Conversations with Chester Himes (1995), Himes stated that the party had used the civil-rights struggle for its own ends but had done nothing to help blacks. In the same interview, Himes, for all his bitterness toward white people and his growing conviction that blacks could not achieve real equality without violence, pronounced integration preferable to segregation in addressing problems between the races.

In 1953, stung by the failure of his books to achieve recognition in the United States and divorced from his first wife, Himes left his home country. Like most of the expatriated black American artists -- Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, Sidney Bechet, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker -- Himes found refuge not in Africa but in Europe, a culture in many ways similar to that of the United States but perceived as less racist. By the middle 1960s, either because Himes had found his true niche in crime fiction or because his downbeat vision of American society had become more palatable, success came at last. Living in Spain with his second wife, he was able to enjoy some financial stability and recognition from the literary world, sadly accompanied by steadily failing health and continued anger and bitterness, until the end of his life in 1984.

Detective fiction is about making sense of things, and Himes's work often seems to be about how little sense can be made of anything. Thus, one might expect Himes to produce anti-detective fiction, that aggravating form in which problems are posed but solutions withheld, using the trappings of the mystery to subvert it. Only Blind Man With a Pistol fits that description. In the last two chapters, the title character, who has no connection with the rest of the story, goes on his shooting rampage, and the Harlem detective team are seen using their expensive weapons to shoot rats. The novel's mysteries, including who committed the murders and the identity of the shadowy rackets boss Mr. Big, are never solved.

But the other novels in the series are genuine detective stories. Himes the crime fiction writer is most often celebrated for his vivid descriptions of Harlem, his offbeat characters and their colorful dialogue, his depiction of violence-as-everyday-life, and his pungent observations about race relations. But his plotting skill deserves recognition
as well. Sallis makes the odd claim
that "Himes largely rejected plot, adopting the simplest gimmicks (what mystery folk call a MacGuffin)...as frameworks on which to hang vivid scenes and confrontations among outlandish characters."

A MacGuffin is the object that sets the plot in motion, the thing all the characters in the story are after. Examples from director Alfred Hitchcock (who is credited with inventing the term) include the secret plans in The 39 Steps and the uranium ore in Notorious. Hammett's statue of a black bird in The Maltese Falcon is another archetype. MacGuffins are plentiful in Himes's work: a trunk full of fool's gold in For Love of Imabelle, a hidden bundle of numbers winnings in The Big Gold Dream (1960), an envelope of campaign funds in All Shot Up (1960), a cotton bale full of money in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), a string of eels containing heroin in The Heat's On (1961), a Gladstone bag with payment for a rejuvenation potion in Blind Man With a Pistol.

But the fact is that Himes fully embraced plot: respecting the mystery genre, observing many of its conventions, and meeting its requirements for misdirection and surprise. Even the outline of the unfinished Plan B, an over-the-top apocalyptic vision of race war in the United States that is more satirical thriller than detective novel, described some solid sleuthing by the Harlem cop team, leading up to the shocking conclusion in which the two old friends choose up sides and Grave Digger shoots and kills Coffin Ed.

All of Himes's crime fiction makes rewarding reading. Purely as a detective story, The Real Cool Killers (1959) is probably the best. Comprising crime, detection, solution, and (in a tense hostage situation) genuine suspense, the novel develops the two Harlem sleuths as unique and sympathetic characters, including Coffin Ed's relationship with his daughter. Justice is done, if indirectly, and -- in contrast to the last books in the series -- the ending is upbeat, positive, even sentimental. Most important for the mystery lover, Himes is as determined as Agatha Christie to divert the reader's attention from the real killer.

For us now, more than a decade after his death, to reach a judgment about his work, we need to evaluate Himes in three different ways: as an African-American writer, a practitioner of crime fiction, and a figure in the wider world of American letters. None of his stories is as well known as Richard Wright's Native Son, nor do they rank with the absolute classic of black American fiction, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, but Himes's place as an important black novelist seems secure. So, too, Himes seems a permanent addition to the mystery canon. Though a few black mystery writers preceded him, he was the first who could stand with the best in the genre regardless of race, and he paved the way for such later writers as Walter Mosley, Gary Phillips, Gar Anthony Haywood, and Paula L. Woods.

The third question -- Himes's place in American letters -- is more of a problem. American literature in the twentieth century is so obsessed with race and ethnicity, it's difficult to say whether black skin is a help or a hindrance to literary reputation. In a color-blind America, Himes's early books might have achieved greater recognition for their style and narrative power, but in such a society they would have had no reason to exist. Himes had the mixed blessing of being ahead of his time, a truth-teller before the literary world of any color was ready to hear it.

The winner of two Edgar awards, Jon L. Breen is the author of six mystery novels and writes the "Jury Box" column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.