Some Thoughts on Chester Himes on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth

This post was written by Guest Post on July 27, 2009
Posted Under: Literature

Guest post by Tadzio Koelb

Chester Himes

Chester Himes

This week Chester Himes would have celebrated his 100th birthday. If this event is remembered at all, it will mostly be by those who are interested in Himes as the “black Raymond Chandler”, pulp master of the Harlem Renaissance. While this is an accurate reflection of how Himes is read, it overlooks an important side to Himes’ work, one that is both deeper and more personal, as well as more universal and instructive.

The crime novel is, after all, a versatile crutch. So established that in its most rudimentary shape it is practically pre-written, it nevertheless provides an occasional refuge for the most meditative of authors, writers who have roamed far enough from the conventional that only a vehicle as unswerving as the detective story can hold them steady. Chester Himes may have been hard-boiled, but there is another tradition to which he belongs, one more esoteric and – dirtiest of dirty words – cerebral; one more European than American; one in which his closest literary sibling is neither African-American nor a pulp writer nor a tough, but an educated white foreigner and intellectual: the high-modernist Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

The similarities they share are as serious as numerous. Before inventing their detectives, both Himes and Dürrenmatt were writers of difficult work either constricted in the public mind by narrow genres (Himes had written about his periods of incarceration, and his earliest work was characterised as “prison writing”; Dürrenmatt was known as a proponent the theatre of the absurd) or else essentially disowned by meaningless name-calling (“black writing”; “experimental drama”). Both turned to crime, as it were, for a change of pace. It was a lucrative sideline – that for Himes, at least, became an occupation – but one both put to use within the broader progress of their fiction.

Each writer worked in a mode closer to the thriller than the mystery end of the spectrum. Himes constructed on the genre a platform from which to launch a coded diatribe against a racist America; Dürrenmatt used it to structure his explosive extemporising, and found it a natural forum in which to express his distrust of human-built systems. (It is a pity that Malcolm Lowry, also 100 years old this year, never discovered the whodunit: it would have given welcome form to the woolly, delicate, almost continentally slow drifting of his creativity; his painfully introspective take on the drunk cop could have been a fascinating – and much welcomed – re-orientation of the genre.)

Chester Himes’s best-known characters are of course the “ace” detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Always a step behind, able to gather information only by violent means, they bungle and bully their way through case after case in what must be some of the subtlest satires of police brutality and incompetence ever written. By virtue of their skin, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are considered apart from a predominantly white police force, a symbol in Himes’ Harlem of the repression under which most blacks are constrained to live; and yet it is precisely the detectives’ blackness that makes their adoption of police rhetoric and tactics – almost exclusively of the worst kind – such a powerful representation of corruption, and of how it is institutionalised to protect the powerful at the expense of the poor.

All Shot Up provides a very good example. During the course of the book, the detectives kowtow to a corrupt Harlem politician; are involved in a chase that leads to the violent decapitation of a petty criminal; and regularly beat witnesses – all of carefully differentiated shades of black – including (if not especially) those who try to help them. As we watch the pair fumble violently but unsuccessfully through a series of conversations and confrontations, we must note that where Jones and Johnson are on the case important clues are commonly overlooked, witnesses are killed or left unquestioned, and the officers’ abuse of power is both constant and unapologetic; it becomes difficult to imagine that these are anyone’s idea of “aces”. All that can be said to redeem them are a belated resolution of the investigation, the donation of stolen money to the Fresh Air Fund, and a dedication to their work that nevertheless rests upon questionable motives. Do they do it because they believe in the law? If so, why do they feel so free to break what, in the parlance of the genre, they are “sworn to uphold”? Do they do it because they enjoy the position of power and privilege it gives them? Or is it simply that they needed to do something, and the work matched their temperaments? The issue of whether they brought violence to their jobs or their jobs brought it to them remains uninvestigated: in Himes the question of origin is always overwhelmed by the crushing demands of the status quo. There is no need to mention slavery – on every page, it is implied – and no time to worry about the past when the present is so alarming.

Race naturally plays an important part in Grave Digger and Coffin’s investigations. As black detectives in a time of segregation they police only black neighborhoods; they are often the target of racist jokes or insults by white officers. Although they react to these affronts with the outrage one expects, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed themselves embrace a politics of colour, sex, sexuality, and status incompatible precisely with the meritocracy that would be to their greatest benefit were they in fact any good at their jobs. When challenged by their superior officer, the white Lieutenant Anderson, they tend to disarm him with vague accusations of racism. They are homophobic, as well, and yet their own position as black men serving a status quo that favours whites is mirrored throughout the book by incidents of cross-dressing. It is Grave Digger himself who remarks that the gay and black communities are similarly marginalised; he then goes on to threaten a helpful gay witness with an unnamed fate should the investigation go awry.

The cross-dressing also mirrors and highlights certain physical alterations that Coffin Ed and Grave Digger undergo. As the story progresses we are regularly reminded of the acid burns that scar Coffin Ed’s face, the result of an attack by a suspect during the course of a previous investigation. The burns were grafted with lighter skin taken from another part of his body, marring the physical aspect – colour – by which Coffin Ed is both socially and professionally defined, “whitening” him a little. Because the scars are the result of his job, it is easy to see them as a physical representation of the moral disorder that marks his career.

Following the bungled pursuit that leads to the decapitation of a potentially important witness, Grave Digger crashes the car. During the accident he loses parts of two front teeth, and causes considerable damage to his lips; from then on, he is described almost always as lisping when he speaks, a characteristic attributed by stereotype – and in Himes’ world we are always acutely, even painfully, aware of stereotype – to gay men. To an extent, the detectives are negatively defined to the reader: they are neither white (not even light-skinned), nor gay, but each now bears some external resemblance to one of those groups. In each case the resemblance arises from a job-related injury, tying their physical degeneration to the course of their inquiry. The work of physically occupying a place, the job of “improving” a society by controlling it, changes people, we gather, almost as much as the chore of being occupied.

At an important point in the book, the detectives receive a call from a stool pigeon, a fortune-teller and gay cross-dresser known as Lady Gypsy. She tells them a car they are looking for is parked in his street; the driver and passengers are customers waiting in Gypsy’s other room. It is the only lead the detectives have so far. When they arrive, the car and its occupants are gone; Lady Gypsy and her companion have been attacked. Despite having provided an opportunity to advance their case, Gypsy is struck several times by Grave Digger during a predictably violent interrogation. It is telling that when Lady Gypsy announces plans to have her earlier assailants charged, she says nothing about pressing charges against the police.

This acceptance of the police force as an instrument of brutality is an indictment not just of Johnson and Jones but of the society which produced them. Indeed, at times it is almost as if it were because violence is expected of them that the detectives are so quick to indulge. Like the criminals they hunt, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are part and parcel of the repressive machine, but in a sense, the book infers, so are those who accept them – and everyone accepts them. In Himes, black American culture exists exclusively under siege, and the soldiers who pitch the battle – whether police or criminals – are indistinguishably frightening to the civilian population.

If Himes’ heroes don’t fit the genre stereotype, neither do Himes’ stories meet expectations: the detectives do practically no detecting, for example, and there is little by way of suspense. The reader comes to realise early on that if he had hoped for a dazzling denouement, he had better not hold his breath. Crime and its resolution are not the point of a Chester Himes crime novel.

Himes, as an ex-convict, certainly had reason to distrust police. What perhaps emerges from his writing, however, is that he also had reason to distrust himself. Like other notables of the Harlem Renaissance, whether Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin, Chester Himes had access through his writing to a (predominantly white) world that few blacks could reach, and then only through the counterfeit of “passing”. Like many of his contemporaries, Himes blurred the distinction by moving to France. “White” culture as it existed in America was found not to be universal; this was the comforting obverse of the effect experienced by American blacks who visited Africa to discover a world they didn’t recognise or necessarily care for, but that comfort could feel like betrayal. It is perhaps not surprising that the name of the well-to-do political boss who feeds off the poor blacks of Harlem to support a lifestyle only whites can usually afford is Caspar Holmes – not all that far from the author’s own.

Himes never stands up for criminals, however, nor does he sentimentalise the victims of crime: in his rogues’ gallery there is no Arsène Lupin, no gentlemanly, happy-go-lucky imp to represent the populist sense of a corrupt but necessary system set aright by individual acts of mischief. Generally, criminals are hoods, parasites preying on gullible (but not necessarily honest) citizens, or else hardened killers who never consider their actions. Sometimes they are people simply so degraded by poverty that they are incapable of other behavior. Those who are victims today might be perpetrators tomorrow: no one is innocent.

During a quiet moment in All Shot Up, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger discuss a Gorky short story about a boy who disappears beneath the ice of a frozen pond; the body is never found, and townsfolk come to the conclusion that he may never have existed. The story is of course a parable for the turning of a blind eye, whether by a family towards such unpleasant subjects as an unhappy marriage or child abuse; or by a society and government towards police brutality and the systematic repression of a racial minority. In a certain sense, this is the crime that all Himes’ books investigate, and the culprit never varies. It is all of us.

It might be just this subtlety amid the carnage that makes Himes’ writing, seemingly so cinematographic, such a difficult thing to film. Each medium makes its own demands of the genre, and nuance is the thing least likely to translate. A viewer is very different from a reader, and anyway, Himes’ trick cannot work without a dissenting voice – a dissenting voice of authorial sarcasm which cannot be reproduced on film. A director must chose between offering Himes as he appears, or as he is: Will Grave Digger and Coffin Ed be heroes, “aces”, or will they be blundering, blood-soaked fools? Between the Scylla of Con Air and the Charybdis of Alphaville, Himes steers a dangerous course. Of course Alphaville was famously dull, even for intellectuals, but to strip Himes’ crime fiction of its delicately poised ethical uncertainty is to leave little more than thuggery. It is hardly surprising that the film version of Cotton Comes to Harlem was a bloodbath.

The movie based on For Love of Imabelle, retitled A Rage in Harlem, rather ingeniously sidestepped the issue by making a minor character, Jackson, both the lead role (potentially allowing Gravedigger and Coffin Ed to shade into the morally ambiguous figures they should be, but blunting them by denying their centrality) and a star vehicle for Forest Whitaker, malleable to the actor’s best qualities.

Dürrenmatt’s crime fiction has also been adapted for the cinema. It may be hard to say why Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge (which he called in the subtitle a “requiem for the detective novel”) survived the process so much better. For one thing, certainly, it found the right director in Sean Penn. A story about the misfortunes of chance, one which has no real conclusion, served to cure all the ills of Penn’s previous film, The Crossing Guard. That movie ended with a finale so pat it undid much of the hard work that came before. Dürrenmatt’s novel gave Penn the opportunity he never gave himself, the opportunity to profit by uncertainty, and Penn embraced it. It may also be because The Pledge doesn’t really resemble Dürrenmatt’s other crime fiction. The novel was itself based on a failed screenplay, “Es geschah am hellichten Tag”, and unlike The Judge and His Hangman or The Quarry, judiciously avoids the unrepresentable, when the unrepresentable is precisely at the heart of those other works.

Of course Dürrenmatt can’t help but play sly games (naturally removed from the film version): The Pledge is a story narrated, for example, by a (drugged and drowsy) character who strongly resembles the author, as heard from another person who knows much of it only second-hand. However unconventional that sounds, The Quarry takes such destabilising elements much further. While it includes a “locked door” murder, that staple of the form, the rest of the book has in common with detective fiction only that it features a detective and a criminal. In fact, there are many crimes in The Quarry: a missing person, a stolen identity, a murder, all quite implausible. There is an implausible cast of characters, too, including a trained acrobatic dwarf, an enormous, avenging, Golem-like Jew called Gulliver, and a death-obsessed nurse.

The story is no easier to believe. The plot lurches forward from the unlikely discovery of a crime by the retired detective Barlach, a dying man in a hospital bed, while reading an ancient waiting-room magazine, to a confrontation at the heart of the killer’s very public hideout. There is no chase, and very little detecting is done: the guilty, once named, admit their roles and go about their business. The ending requires (of course) a deus ex machina, and is almost entirely unconvincing.

The Quarry is nonetheless a fascinating book: frightening, unsettling, and recognisably of its genre. Behind all these far-fetched aspects of the plot, infusing them with menace, linking them to each other and to reality, lurks the Holocaust, just as the character embodying that event links, by his terrible actions, all the others. This is Emmenberger, a Nazi torturer without conscience, without feeling, without any recognisable human characteristic except his body. Nothing is more unbelievable than Emmenberger’s kind of cruelty, and yet we must believe it: it is historical fact.

Like Gastmann in The Judge and His Hangman, Emmenberger is not a criminal – criminals after all are human. He is, instead, immorality itself, doing ill not from financial necessity or mental illness, but simply because it can be done. Dürrenmatt, the experienced dramatist, avoided such a depiction of pure evil in “Es geschah am hellichten Tag” almost certainly from the knowledge that any attempt to show absolute good or evil in drama always ends up in practice as camp (one need only think of any Bond villain). What remains hidden, meanwhile, has incredible power, and the killer in The Pledge is rarely shown.

Of course, you cannot “solve” the Holocaust, and Barlach, confined throughout The Quarry to his sick bed, is forbidden to try. Instead, the story comes to him, as it comes to us all who didn’t experience it – and just as the story of All Shot Up comes to Johnson and Jones. If All Shot Up and The Quarry don’t turn out to be completely ridiculous it is simply for this reason: that we know the very worst of these things, the most unimaginable, inconceivable in their cruelty and horror, to have occurred: slavery, the Holocaust, all the terrible half-forgotten violence of human history. What then remains to stop us accepting the rest, the dwarf, the giant, the cross-dressers, the stunts and deceptions? This is what makes the god from the machine indispensable; nothing else will do to purge the scene. In Barlach’s case the god is Gulliver, a character who somehow stands in for the reader. Like the reader, he is unconvinced by one of Barlach’s many failed ruses; like the reader, he is concerned, and has been following the story closely throughout. When he arrives (at the last possible moment, of course – this is a genre novel, after all) to take his revenge on Emmenberger, we cannot help but feel relieved, even grateful, no matter how skeptical we remain.

Skepticism is at the very center of all Dürrenmatt’s crime fiction, just as it is at the center of Himes’. It is especially to be found in moments of resolution: such justice as can be found is always extra-judicial, by and large unbelievable, and generally requires the commission of a crime. Importantly, it has no suspensory effect: the damage is already done. What follows is either a primitive act of atavistic human nature, desperate for revenge, or the academic application of some hypothesis of retribution as balm. This distrust of any practicable justice is what Dürrenmatt shares with Himes, and what they two share with almost no other crime writers of merit. Both Dürrenmatt and Himes doubt the social system created to impose the law, and in this they are not alone: it is the essentially reactionary temptation of the crime thriller to seel solace in natural (i.e, bloody and extra-social) justice rather than judicial process. What makes these two writers so special is that when each finally takes justice out of the hands of society and invests it in individuals, it is only to reject the solution as outrageously flawed. That paradox is the real mystery of their work.

Tadzio Koelb is a writer and critic. He lives in Tunisia.

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Reader Comments


Written By jim jay on July 27th, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

While I appreciate the over-due respect whown Himes and his work, I would hardly characterize the crime novel as a “crutch.” In fact, it was this genre that fed and housed many working writers. Would this poster prefer that Himes fade into obscurity or, worse, starve to death rather than make use of this crutch?

Written By ed on August 18th, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

Loved it! Your knowledge and understanding of both writer’s work is thorough and awe-inspiring. I don’t much about Durrenmatt, but after reading this I feel like I know him quite well. But Hines I have read extensively yet never drew from what I read the observations you’ve made here…but I can feel the accuracy of them. Thanks for sharing!

Written By Loco on February 6th, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

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