The comments on the previous entry, “The Unsung Hero of the 1970s,” reveal a divergence of opinion — to put it mildly — about the merits of Robert Altman’s film The Long Goodbye. (One commentor calls it “one of the greatest films ever made”; another writes that Altman’s crime film “was an actual crime in itself.”) The debate got me thinking about movies made from detective novels, and about detective novels themselves. And that made me think of the African-American writer Chester Himes.
Himes (1909-84), who began writing while serving a prison sentence for armed robbery, was an odd guy. One thing that struck me about the two volumes of his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1973) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), and his non-genre novels, including If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Lonely Crusade (1947), is that he had one of those minds that give equal weight to many things. As a result those two otherwise well-crafted novels alternate between stretches of tight, tense writing and passages drier than the minutes from a board meeting.
BUT Himes seemed to understand that that approach wouldn’t work with detective fiction, and his works in that genre — his best novels, to my mind — were as lean and mean as a welterweight boxer, not to mention funny. They all feature the black Harlem police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.
I quote from a piece I wrote years ago for an obscure little magazine called Paperback Parade:
“These partners, big, mean, dedicated, and in many ways indistinguishable, serve as the link between Harlem and the police department — products of the former, they continually demonstrate their (unspoken) allegiance to the latter. Or perhaps the reverse is true: cops to the bone, not above busting heads (to get information, or out of mere irritation, or both), they protect the citizens of these tough streets by being tougher still. . . . [They are not] sentimental about the community they serve. They are, as detectives must be, skeptical of everything.”
Himes writes about their adventures in books including The Crazy Kill (1959), The Real Cool Killers (1959), All Shot Up (1960), The Heat’s On (1966), and the transcendent Blind Man with a Pistol (1969).
Two movies were made from Himes’s Grave Digger/Coffin Ed novels in the 1970s: Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back Charleston Blue, both starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques. I haven’t seen those in years, but I liked t hem as a kid. (A side note: the gifted, forgotten Cambridge was very good as the lead in The Watermelon Man, Melvin Van Peebles’s movie about a white racist who wakes up one day to discover that he has turned black.) In A Rage in Harlem, released in 1991, Digger and Ed are relegated to minor parts, while the main story focuses on a poor dumb guy (played by Forest Whitaker) and the beautiful, dangerous woman he loves (Robin Givens).
If only Spike Lee would make a film from one of Himes’s novels, and cast Samuel Jackson and either Denzel Washington or Jamie Foxx…