Street Justice in Old Harlem

The Real Cool Killers (1959)

By Chester Himes

If you need convincing either that the 1950s were anything but halcyon and that racism was, and continues to be, a real, visceral issue in the United States, Chester Himes’ The Real Cool Killers will serve as a potent persuader. Himes dresses this education in a quickly read and very brutal hunt for a killer by his two black detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

In the novel, second in Himes’ Harlem Detective Series (nine completed novels, one unfinished), the white cops are blatantly racists, the black bad guys (particularly Sheik) respond with their own racial hatred, and any semblance of citizen rights barely exist. If that isn’t enough, the victim is a white man shot dead amid a crowd in Harlem. Forget that a black man in a bar has an arm chopped off and another gets gunned down by Coffin Ed. The outrage of the cops focuses on the murder of a white man by a black killer. And the white man, Ulysses Galen, turns out to be a sadist preying on young black women. Lest you think anything is given away here, the novel ends on a big twist that in a weird way serves justice. Maybe.

Even if you are not ordinarily a detective novel reader, you’ll find several reasons to try the book. First, of course, is Himes’ snapshot of a Harlem almost gone, where now African Americans no longer comprise the majority and the place rushes along in a wave of gentrification. Second, is the absolute rawness of the novel, particularly the language. Literally, most detective fiction today isn’t nearly as stuffed with vulgarity as this novel; you’ll be surprised. Himes also creates mood by employing a scaled back, easily accessible street vernacular.

Then there’s the way the cops go about their work; that is, with no regard, zero, for the rights of citizens, with Grave Digger and Coffin Ed as bad as the white cops. To wit, Grave Digger is interviewing (well, actually badgering, intimidating and threatening a group of teens in the Dew Drop Inn, where said arm separation occurred earlier) and a teen cautions about rights. Mistake: “Grave Digger slapped him out of his seat, reached down and lifted him from the floor by the coat lapels and slammed him back into his seat.” That’s a civics lesson, for sure.

Chester Himes was born in Missouri, and moved to Arkansas and Ohio with his family. His father taught industrial trades at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (formerly Normal College). His mother also was a teacher. He became truly embittered when a school experiment blinded his brother Joseph and a whites-only hospital refused him treatment. After his family resettled in Cleveland, he attended Ohio State University, before the school expelled him for pranking. He then began committing crimes, which landed him in the Ohio Penitentiary for a long sentence. There, he started writing and publishing. Totally fed up with the U.S. by the 50s, he moved to France in 1953, where his work was respected. He met his second wife in Paris and mingled with some of the most famous writers, artists, and intellectuals of the day, such as Picasso and Nikki Giovanni. Later, he and his wife moved to Spain, where he died of Parkinson’s disease at age 75. For more about Himes, see Chester Himes: A Life, by James Sallis. w/c

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