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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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.