Chester Himes, where have you been all my life?
There are quite a lot of authors I mean to get to but things always get in the way. Chester Himes was one of those names I knew of but had never read his stuff and hadn't had anyone else recommend him so I kept putting it off. He's most known for A Rage in Harlem only because it was filmed twice (once as Cotton Comes To Harlem), neither version is bad but neither are great.
You gotta love a good dollar bookstore.
While buying books for my daughters I scanned the Mystery shelf and found The Real Cool Killers. First off, there is that title. I'm already sold. It was a slim volume. I read the copyright date. 1959. I'm so in.
I learned a little bit about Himes before I began. The Real Cool Killers is part of his Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones series. (again, I'm so in) Not the first but it didn't seem like I needed to know much other than they are two Harlem cops in the 50s so I started reading. I doubt there has been a first chapter that grabbed me better than this one.
I just ranted in a previous post about slow starts. This was the antidote to that. It had a visceral sense of place, riveting action that came at me from all sides. It sets up a central mystery with no solution in sight. Knives were pulled, a juke joint was jumping, an axe was used, guns were fired and a man was dead and this is all in four pages!
When I read I like to be taken someplace else. What Himes does, by virtue of his own experience as one of the rare black writers of crime fiction, is to take the reader into Harlem and make you smell, hear, taste and feel every inch of it. It was a setting and a voice unlike anything I'd ever read except maybe the other African-American writer (who, like Himes, served prison time) Donald Goines who's Daddy Cool is also a favorite.
The plot moves briskly. All the action takes place in one night as Coffin Ed and Grave Digger search for the killer. Really, they aren't even the central characters. Grave Digger is absent for most of the book. They act more as recurring characters in the series more than the central figures.
I won't spoil anything and honestly the plot was not what I was digging most. It was the mood, the language, the totally different feeling of it all. I was transported and that is the highest compliment I can pay to a book. Sure, some of the scenes dragged a bit. It is almost heartlessly bleak. It deals in unsavory actions and the cops are some of the most vicious people in the book. But I dare you – DARE YOU – to read the first chapter and not be hooked. And, as dangerous as the Harlem streets are depicted, I dare you not to want to walk those streets after you're done. If only because you feel like you know them so well already.