Pulp Appeal: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes (Guest Post by Anthony Perconti)

Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys good stories across many different genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in Swords and Sorcery Magazine and DMR Books Blog.

Cover of Chester Himes novel A Rage in Harlem

Chester Himes, an African American expat living in France, published his first crime novel in the United States in 1957 under the title of For the Love of Imabelle. This book was eventually re-named to its current moniker, A Rage in Harlem. This is the first book in what came to be known as Himes’ Harlem Cycle (alternately known as the Harlem Detectives series), that was awarded the French Grand Prix de la Litterature Policiere. The main protagonist of the book is Jackson, who resides in Harlem with Imabelle, the love of his life who he plans on marrying. He has a steady job at the local funeral home (owned by H. Exodus Clay) and by all accounts is known as an honest, hardworking, pious man, who is highly devoted to his lover. This being a hardboiled crime story, those descriptors are shorthand for Jackson being a sucker of the first degree. Or as Himes describes him, a “five cornered square.” Jackson gets roped in by a group of grifters using the con known as The Blow (you take the mark’s cash, then blow town). Ten dollar bills are “raised up” to hundred dollar bills through a phony chemical process involving an oven. With the encouragement of Imabelle, Jackson drops his life savings of fifteen hundred dollars into the con. At the point of the cash being “raised up’, one of the grifters, posing as a U.S. Marshal, storms the apartment, while simultaneously, the oven explodes, leaving Jackson in the lurch to take the fall (everyone else present, including Imabelle, has split). The fake Marshal shakes down Jackson for more money on the pretense that he will not arrest him, forcing the poor dupe to steal five hundred dollars from his boss, Clay. As a way to try and get out from the burden that he is under, Jackson enters a late night game of craps and ends up digging himself deeper in the red. As a last resort, with no one else to turn to, Jackson seeks out the help of his brother.

Image by Jim Rugg – https://www.jimrugg.com/

Goldy is Jackson’s twin brother who is known on the street as Sister Gabriel of the Sisters of Mercy. He is running an ongoing scam in which he impersonates a nun in order to fleece people of their donated alms while also charging people a dollar for a literal ticket into the Pearly Gates. Himes gives Goldy some great pieces of dialogue; he is constantly dropping either some misremembered or made up biblical quote. It’s hard to tell which; “By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire and by the smoke and by the brimstone which issued out of their mouths.” Goldy lives with two other female impersonators; Lady Gypsy, a fortune teller and Big Kathy, who runs a bordello (named The Circus). The three are known collectively around the neighborhood as the Three Black Widows. In addition to being a con-man, Goldy is also a raging heroin addict. While the two are physically identical in appearance, the brothers are the direct antithesis of each other when it comes to how they live their lives. Jackson and Goldy have nothing but disdain for each other; one because he is a square, while the other is a criminal. But when push comes to shove, Jackson knows that Goldy can help him in finding the whereabouts of his girl and get him out of trouble. Goldy is able to locate the grifters (Hank, Slim, Gus, and knife-wielding Jodie) through the services of Big Kathy’s bordello and finds out that they are wanted for murder in Mississippi. The intelligence that is gathered from The Circus is that the crew is hatching a new scam in order to lure suckers into buying shares of a non-existent lost Mexican goldmine. The pivotal part of this hustle, the part that really passes it off as legit, that gets Goldy’s spidey sense tingling, is that the crew has a trunk of gold ore on hand as proof to lure in potential investors. Coincidentally, it is revealed by Jackson, that this trunk of precious metal belonged to Imabelle’s ex and is now in her possession (wow, what are the chances?). With the pieces and players all laid out on the board, Himes punches down on the accelerator, blasting the plot forward. I don’t want to give away too much of the novel’s intricacies, but suffice it to say, with this MacGuffin in play, along with Jackson’s quest to get his girl back, tensions escalate into all out war between these rival factions. Matters become further complicated with the arrival on the scene of Harlem police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.

The through line of the entirety of Harlem Cycle lies with the dual protagonists of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. This team of African American detectives is assigned to the Harlem beat; they carry matching nickel plated, long barreled .38’s, and each man is known by his distinct catchphrase: Coffin Ed’s is “Count off!”, while Jones” is “Straighten up!” These partners are of the shoot first and ask questions later school of policing. They are a throwback of sorts, Old West gunfighters through and through. This pair would feel right at home administering prairie style justice in a frontier mining town. Even their warnings towards the small potatoes hoodlums they are arresting are direct and to the point, in Judge Dredd, Dirty Harry Callahan sort of way: “’Don’t make graves,’ Grave Digger cautioned.” Johnson gets taken out of action when he gets acid thrown in his face by Hank leaving it up to Coffin Ed to bring the murderous grifters to justice (Johnson returns in later novels, albeit bearing the acid scars on his face). Himes continually ratchets up the stakes of this deadly game of cat and mouse between the various players, until events reach a violent and blood soaked critical mass. And when this tipping point is reached, Himes does not shy away in depicting the real life consequences of violence. A fairly gruesome scene unfolds later in the book involving cutter Jodie.

Image by Chris Visions – http://www.chrisvisions.com/

The worldview that Chester Himes posits in this novel is quite a cynical one; the vast majority of the characters are out for themselves, everyone has an angle and is running a scam of their own devising. Even Jackson’s minister, the aptly named Reverend Gains, who is supposed to be the moral steward of his congregation, is living a life of luxury while his flock gets by from hand to mouth. It is very telling that the only honest man in the tale is dupe who is (willingly?) blind to the machinations of the woman that he loves. Everyone else in the story sees Imabelle for what she truly is; just another scammer trying to score. All the while, quietly looming in the background is Jackson’s boss, H. Exodus Clay, laughing all the way to the bank. Murder and death are good for business. This pervading cynical outlook is a traditional touchstone in hardboiled fiction and film noirs; the world and its inhabitants do not have your best interest at heart, they are predatory in nature. In addition to constructing an intricate plot, Chester Himes deserves credit as a lyrical wordsmith; his turns of phrase are elegantly constructed.

In setting a series within a specific time and place, coupled with his ample skills as a stylist, Himes” writing shares some parallels with what James Ellroy[1] created decades later with his initial L.A. Quartet and continued to expand upon in his Underworld U.S.A Trilogy. Both authors have a distinct bebop, staccato cadence to their sentence structures. For example, “Jackson looked up at the clock on the wall and the clock said hurry-hurry.” Or this, my favorite tidbit that sounds like a snippet out of The Big Nowhere or perhaps American Tabloid: “Ready! Solid ready to cut throats, crack skulls, dodge police, steal hearses, drink muddy water, live in a hollow log, and take any rape-fiend chance to be once more in the arms of his high- yellow heart.” In addition to stylistic similarities, I believe Himes and Ellroy are also simpatico when it comes to their shared philosophy of the world; you’re a predator or prey, a scammer or a mark. The choice is binary. Himes states; “[I]n the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.” That statement sums it up succinctly. Crime fiction doesn’t get any more hardboiled than that. I would encourage readers to track down and purchase the Penguin Modern Classics version of this novel. This United Kingdom edition sports a fantastic pulpy cover by Aaron Robinson with an informative introductory piece on Himes by Luc Sante,[2] an author, professor, and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. The Penguin Modern Classics edition is readily available on Amazon, for roughly the same price as the American Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard edition. Clocking in at a svelte two hundred and ten pages, you can rip through this little hardboiled gem in a rainy weekend.

[1] I might catch some flak for saying this, but I am of the opinion that what Himes did with his Harlem setting, Ellroy followed suit with his portrayal of Los Angeles. Certainly Raymond Chandler got there first, but Ellroy’s L.A. is bursting at the seams with a manic populous comprised of scammers, chumps, ambitious starlets, Mafiosi, cops on the take and several species of stone killers. Chandler’s city seems downright idyllic compared to that of Ellroy’s and Himes’. Philip Marlowe, beware!

[2] Luc Sante is the author of 1991’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Fans of crime fiction, folk history, or of old New York in the bad old days should check this out. This book is a chronicle of the movers and shakers of the city’s criminal underworld from 1840 to 1919. This work is a direct descendent of Herbert Asbury’s 1928, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. The two works bookend each other perfectly.

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