The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes (1959)
Chester Himes’ writing has earned him a place in the pantheon of crime fiction greats. He got there the hard way – living every inch of the pain and prejudice his novels deal in. So why isn’t he better recognised for his contribution to the genre? After all Himes is a masters of the art, same as Hammett, same as Chandler. He isn’t a very good black writer, he’s simply a very good writer, but his themes of racism, institutional indifference and corruption still make some people uncomfortable. Would that his novels didnt feel so relevant today but they do because not enough has changed for the better and somethings are getting worse. I can only conclude that racism, overt and unconscious, is a big part of the reason he’s not given due respect, (something several commentators concur with).
There is no doubt that racism was a defining issue for Himes, something he faced for most of his life, he was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909 and died in Spain in 1984. After misbehaving as a boy Himes was excluded from a school science demonstration with his older brother Joseph by his strict mother. Tragically, Joseph was blinded by an explosion during the experiment, but the child was refused treatment under Jim Crow laws at the local white hospital. Himes:
“A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.”
In 1928 Himes was brutally beaten when arrested for a serious crime, an armed robbery, he got a twenty-five year sentence at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Naturally his scepticism of the law and policing was exacerbated by this incident and the abuse of power became a constant theme of his fiction. There’s an edgy cynicism and a healthy lack of respect for authority and it’s hypocrisy in his work. Himes started writing in prison, he gained a reputation through short stories in magazines before eventually publishing a novel. He was finally released in 1936. By the 1940s he was working as a script writer when his novel If He Hollers Let Him Go was published.
“Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the south, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.”
He moved to France in the 1950s and lived out his life in Europe, in Paris he was finally respected and lauded for his work. Himes wrote a two volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1973) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), and there is a fantastic biography by JamesSallis Chester Himes A Life (2002).
A Rage in Harlem (1957) introduces the Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed (Johnson) series that ran for more than a decade. In The Real Cool Killers a white man, Ulysses Galen, is ‘slumming it’ in the black district of Harlem when he is attacked by a black man with a knife in a bar. Galen flees for his life tripping over a drunk in the process. The angry drunk, Pickens, chases Galen shooting at him as they run down the street. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones arrest Pickens when they find Galen shot to death, this is a slam dunk case for detectives. But Pickens is rescued from the cops by a street gang, the Real Cool Moslems, (a kids street gang with false beards). However, when they investigate the detectives discover that Pickens’ gun is a theatrical prop, it only fires blanks, so it’s obviously not the murder weapon. Something else is going on here but they still need to find Pickens if they are going to get to the real killer…
The Real Cool Killers is a street wise novel of immense power, there’s a seething anger at the outrageous racism and corruption in Harlem. The dialogue, setting and characters all seem to fit time and place perfectly. Naturally these policemen aren’t heroes, they are hypocrites, they abhor violence unless it’s something they are inflicting themselves. So their claim to the moral high ground is highly dubious as they bemoan the drop in societal standards and lack of respect for the police. They profess a belief in God and justice but what do they really represent?
Lots of violence and sex, gritty realism, wit and street savvy. This is a chaotic world where justice is a nebulous concept, injustice a constant. You feel for the characters, get angry and indignant at their treatment, that’s how you know this fiction works.
Penguin Classics 9780141196480 pbk