Chester Himes

Chester Himes’ (1909-1984) role in hard-boiled fiction has its roots far outside the typical pulp and dime novel origins. His early life and works were similar to those of African-Americans Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and like them he exiled himself to Paris. It was there, in desperate need, that he began writing his “Harlem Domestic” series about Detectives “Coffin” Ed Jones and “Grave Digger” Johnson, the first black detectives to reach a wide audience. Many critics feel that these ten novels, devoid of the didactic preaching in his earlier, serious works, achieve Himes’ aim more effectively. They are certainly his best known novels.

Himes was born July 29, 1909 in Kansas City,himes-young Missouri, the son of a dark-skinned father and a light-skinned mother, both teachers. The racial tension between his socially successful parents was palpable, leading to one of Himes’ recurring themes: discrimination by blacks against blacks. Moving to Cleveland in 1925, Himes attended an integrated high school and lived in a Jewish neighborhood. His brother’s blinding during a chemistry experiment and his own disastrous fall down an elevator shaft while working as a bus-boy are incidents from this period that figure in his fiction (Coffin Ed has been scarred by acid). Himes attended Ohio State University for two years, but spent much time slumming. He was asked to withdraw from school after leading several couples to a speakeasy, where a prostitute started a fight with them.1 Returning to Cleveland, he met his future wife, Jean Lucinda Johnson, and fell into petty crime. Within two months of 1928 Himes was convicted of three crimes, including armed robbery, and sent to the Ohio State penitentiary for twenty to twenty-five years. He was nineteen. In prison, he said, he learned how the world really worked – absurdly. He took a homosexual lover named Prince Rico and barely escaped the infamous Easter, 1930, prison riot and fire that killed 330 inmates. The latter he turned into his first magazine article, “To What Red Hell,” which appeared in 1934 in Esquire, where he was identified by name and prison I.D. number. In prison he read many pulp magazines, including Black Mask. He was particularly impressed by Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams, whose exploits he mentioned in letters to the outside. 2

Released from prison after six years, Himes moved back to Cleveland. He wrote more hard-boiled stories for Esquire, married Jean Johnson in 1937, and met Langston Hughes, who gave him aid and artistic contacts. Himes struggled financially, working first for the Federal Writers’ Project, then for the Cleveland Daily News and the C.I.O. labor union. 3 Hoping to advance his career, the Himes visited Harlem and then worked for Ohio writer Louis Bromfield as butler and cook. When Bromfield went to Hollywood in 1941 to write movie scripts, they followed. Himes apparently hoped to sell a script of his prison experiences. 4

Himes claimed to have twenty-three jobs in the next four years, among them government-sponsored war-work in the San Pedro shipyards, which paid well and had a reputation for fair hiring and employment. 5 But Himes found “Jim Crow” practices there, depicting his shipyard days bitterly in If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). Not a detective or crime novel, If He Hollars… is nonetheless authentically hard-boiled. The novel covers five days of rising tension in the life of shipyard worker Bob Jones, who is finally almost lynched after an argument with a bigoted white Texan named Madge. himesAttempting to seduce Jones, Madge meets rejection and cries rape. Bob has anticipated some such cataclysmic event in a series of nightmares. His day-time encounters with his light-skinned girlfriend Alice, who “passes” for white, and co-worker Smitty, who adopts an Uncle Tom docility, compound his claustrophobic sense of social limits. The novel seethes with anger, yet Himes wrote later in The Quality of Hurt that it was the hypocrisy of Los Angeles that sickened him most. 6 Not surprisingly, he kept company with the Communist Party during this period. As Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre note, the novel shows the influences of “Hemingway and Hammett, whose fiction Himes admired” and also that of Richard Wright. 7

In 1944 and 1945 Himes and Jean lived with friends and in rented rooms in Harlem, soaking up music and atmosphere and meeting Wright and his wife as well as the Ralph Ellisons. 8 In a series of loaned houses on the East and West coasts, Himes finished Lonely Crusade (1947), which was similar in plot and tone to his first novel. Cast the First Stone (1952) was based on his time in the Ohio State Penitentiary and is often cited by scholars as the “classic prison novel,” relating the terrifying events of Himes’ time behind bars. In The Third Generation (1954), writes Stephen Milliken, Himes compresses “the traumas generated within the black American community itself by the pressures of racism to the story of a single black family, rent by the conflict between a black-hating mother and a black-accepting father, and the sons caught in between – Himes’ own story.” 9 Himes himself liked best of all his next novel, The End of a Primitive [also titled The Primitive] (1955). Using the nightmare motif of his first novel to pattern his protagonist’s obsessions, Himes depicts the violent end of love between black writer Jesse Robinson and his white mistress Kriss. The story is based on Himes’ affair with Vandi Haywood, and scholar Michel Fabre writes that it might be his most profound: “The hurts of the white woman are at least comparable to those of the black man,” notes Milliken, and “she endures a roughly similar, and equally pitiable, minority status.” 10

Waiting for a breakthrough, Himes and his wife survived on care-taker jobs, grants, and loans in the early 1950s. Disillusioned, he was determined to leave the U.S., just as Wright and Baldwin had. Translations of his novels met some success in France, and in 1953 he settled into the Paris expatriate community where these two were heroes. But Himes lived penniless on the fringe and never really learned French. He wrote that he was “desperate,” living in “a little crummy hotel” when contacted by French publisher Marcel Duhamel in 1956. Founder of the “Serie Noir,” Duhamel cultivated French hard-boiled novelists and translated the American writers as soon as their books came out. Like Alfred Knopf in the U.S., Duhamel was talent scout, publisher and advocate of hard-boiled fiction in Europe. He had already read Himes’ work; what he proposed was a series of crime thrillers set in Harlem. When Himes protested that he didn’t know how, Duhamel replied that it was simple: start with a bizarre incident, and for style, follow the examples of Hammett and Chandler. 11

Himes, desperate, locked himself in a room every day with two or three bottles of wine and wrote. In three weeks he had written a book he called For Love of Imabelle (1957) which was re-issued as A Rage in Harlem (1965). Written in English, these books were immediately translated into and published in French for an appreciative audience; Imabelle came out as La Reine des Pommes (1958) and won the “Grand Prix Policier” that year for best detective novel. All ten of the “Harlem Domestic” novels follow the same formula, as Joan Goldsworthy has noted: “A violent and inexplicable crime, enacted in private, touches off a wave of equally violent reactions in anarchy-ridden Harlem. Black detectives “Coffin” Ed Jones and “Grave Digger” Johnson try to bring order to the scene, usually by methods as illegal and deadly as those of the criminals. More often than not, they are only partially successful.” 12 The novels were fast-paced and filled with a black humor that French readers loved. But, as Himes later wrote, “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books.” 13

Himes lived with a series of white American and European women in France, not actually divorcing Jean, in absentia, until 1978, when he married Lesley Packard, whom he had met in Paris in 1959 and lived with off and on after 1960. 14 Though never wealthy, Himes managed to reside in borrowed or rented houses in the most desirable villages of Spain, Italy, Germany and southern France.

The “Harlem Domestic” novels were published himes_laidbackfirst by Gallimard, then by an American paperback house such as Avon, Putnam or Dell. The best known titles in English were The Real Cool Killers (1959), The Crazy Kill (1959), The Big Gold Dream (1960), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1960) and Come Back Charleston Blue (1967). Writing each of these in a matter of weeks, Himes treated them strictly as work for hire – to put food on his table. That they made his reputation in France, and then in the U.S. by virtue of French recognition, he found highly ironic. He “may have thought he cut his own forebrain out when he began to write genre novels,” wrote the Voice Literary Supplement, but “these works complement, rather than contradict, the agonized nostalgia of his other novels.” 15 It seems that, absent the overt social messages, the novels’ grim depictions of ghetto life underlined the failure of the American Dream for African-Americans more effectively. The absurdist humor of Himes’ detectives also fit with the age of Beckett, Vonnegut and Pyncheon. As Edward Margolies has written, “It is humor – resigned, bitter, earthy, slapstick, macabre – that protects author, readers and detectives from the gloom of omnipresent evil.” His characters show “the hard, cynical wit of the urban poor who know how to cheat and lie to the white world to survive physically, and cheat and lie to themselves to survive psychologically.” 16

In the 1960s Himes finally enjoyed media attention, assisting a French documentary in 1962 on Harlem. He suffered a stroke while checking up on a girlfriend in Mexico in 1963, and was incapacitated for months, but he recovered with help from Leslie, with whom he never lived, sufficiently to make a movie on Harlem for French television in 1967. In 1969 they moved to the seaside village of Moraira, on the Costa Blanca of southeast Spain, where he lived the rest of his life. 17 A movie of Cotton comes to Harlem(United Artists), starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques, appeared in 1970, and the same actors starred in Come Back, Charleston Blue (Warner Brothers, 1972).

Himes shunned the spotlight, working instead on his massive autobiography in Spain (The Quality of Hurt, 1972, and My Life of Absurdity, 1977). At the time of his death — November 12, 1984 — Himes was widely regarded as the toughest of black detective writers. His “women dressed in red, his jazzmen, pimps, and scam artists partying on barbecue and weed are saved from being reverse stereotypes because of the bitter density of the rage and humor from which they spring,” wrote the Voice Literary Supplement. “He recorded what happens to a man when his humanity is questioned,” affirmed Stephen Milliken; “the rage that explodes within him, the doubts that follow, and the fears, and the awful temptation to yield, to embrace degradation.” 18


1 Himes life from Edward Margolies & Michel Fabre, The Several Lives of Chester Himes(Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 25. 2 Margolies, 33, 36. 3 Details on Himes life, Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 22, pp. 196-98. 4 Margolies and Fabre, 46-47. 5 Margolies 49, Contemporary Authors, 196. 6 Contemporary Authors, 196. 7 Margolies, 48-49, 52. 8 Margolies, 54-55. 9 Millikin in Contemporary Authors, 197. 10 Fabre in Contemporary Authors, 197. 11 Margolies, 98, 101. 12 Joan Goldsworthy in Contemporary Authors, 197. 13 Margolies, 103. 14 Margolies 112-15. 15 Voice review quoted in Contemporary Authors, 197. 16 Margolies quoted in Contemporary Authors, 197. 17 Margolies. Several Lives, 125, 148. 18 Voice Literary Supplement and Millikin quoted in Contemporary Authors, 197. 19 Information on Zinberg in Gary Warren Niebuhr, A Reader’s Guide to the Private Eye Novel (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993) 155-56. 20 Information on Tidyman in Niebuhr, 226-27.

See the Bibliography of Scholarhip for more information.