A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes
A dark and witty work of hardboiled detective fiction set in the mean streets of New York, Chester Himes’s A Rage in Harlem includes an introduction by Luc Sante in Penguin Modern Classics.
Jackson’s woman has found him a foolproof way to make money – a technique for turning ten dollar bills into hundreds. But when the scheme somehow fails, Jackson is left broke, wanted by the police and desperately racing to get back both his money and his loving Imabelle. The first of Chester Himes’s novels to feature the hardboiled Harlem detectives ‘Coffin’ Ed Johnson and ‘Grave Digger’ Jones, A Rage in Harlem has swagger, brutal humour, lurid violence, a hearse loaded with gold and a conman dressed as a Sister of Mercy.
I am a huge fan of Penguin modern classics, I love the glimpse into a world of literature long before I was born. This time it was the turn of Chester Himes and his novel released in 1957. So here goes, my thoughts on, A Rage In Harlem…..
Firstly, I should state that the writing, dialogue and setting make this novel exceptionally iconic. The plot is intriguing, and you never fully know where the author is going to take it. Or what new fascinating characters will be drawn into the storyline.
The novel opens with Jackson, whom is desperately in love with his girlfriend Imabelle. So much so, he is willing to risk breaking the law, to give her everything she requires. The criminal endeavour is clever. However, the members carrying out the act, not so much! The idea is to ‘launder’ or ‘cook’ $10 notes effectively changing them into $100 notes. Making the gang rich beyond their wildest imagination.
It doesn’t go to plan and Jackson is left staring at the long face of the law; in the shape of a marshal.
“Let this be a lesson Jackson, crime doesn’t pay” – Marshal
Having been ripped off by the marshal to the tune of $200 and stealing from his employer Mr Hh Exodus Clay the undertaker. Jackson has himself, in a whole world of bother. Not only that, Imabelle is missing…….
There are a variety of background characters that are added into scenes. They add to the depth of the novel and create an insight into life in Harlem, in the era. There is Reverend Gaines, trying to do his best to help the struggling local community. Abie the Jew, whom Jackson plays dice with. But it isn’t them who Jackson turns to in his desperate hour of need. It is his twin brother Goldy!
‘There were pictures of three colored men wanted in Mississippi for murder. That meant they had killed a white man because killing a colored man wasn’t considered murder in Mississippi’
There is a strong theme of racial injustice and mistreatment. I think, this is done to highlight the truth of the situation. Sometimes with specific novels, you have to know when to separate the fact from the fiction. Chester Himes created a fictional plot and fictional characters. But the facts of the societal situations that created the injustice are laid bare. It is for the individual reader to interpret Himes’s intentions.
‘Colored folks in Harlem didn’t want to get caught by the police whether they had done anything or not’
The plot develops, and we learn of a local con involving a gold mine. Enter Harlem cops ‘Coffin’ Ed Johnson and ‘Grave Digger’ Jones. No nonsense, tough cops! Then the story and twists in the tale really begin to flourish……..
Chester Himes (1909-1984) was born in Jefferson City, Missouri and grew up in Cleveland. Aged 19 he was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in jail. In jail he began to write short stories, some of which were published in Esquire. Upon release he took a variety of jobs from working in a California shipyard to journalism to script-writing while continuing to write fiction. He later moved to Paris where he was commissioned by La Série Noire to write the first of his Harlem detective novels, A Rage in Harlem, which won the 1957 Grand Prix du Roman Policier, and was adapted into a 1991 film starring Forest Whitaker and Danny Glover.