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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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) 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.