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."