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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chester Himes Centenary

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Chester Himes. He was born on July 29, 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri and died November 12, 1984 in Moraira, Spain. He was an African American novelist whose first novel was If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). He's probably best remembered for his Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series about two black New York detectives, who are not afraid to bust heads if that will solve the crime. Here is a description of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger from the first novel:

As far back as Lieutenant Anderson could remember, both of them, his two ace detectives with their identical big hard-shooting, head-whipping pistols, had always looked like two hog farmers on a weekend in the Big Town.
For The Love of Imabelle (A Rage in Harlem) 1957

The novels are very violent, but the violence is directed mainly at blacks. There is little in them of gangland or drug violence. The type of crime that enrages the two detectives the most is the one in Cotton Comes to Harlem(1965)--a hypocritical preacher extracts an enormous sum of money for a fake back-to-Africa movement. Cotton Comes to Harlem, was made into a successful film in 1970, directed by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques.

Himes books can best be characterized as hard-boiled or noir. He set the standard for black detectives who were not just darker versions of Sherlock Holmes. In my opinion, only Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins and Gary Phillips's Ivan Monk have risen to the level of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger.

Himes was largely ignored in the United States. The French, who loved Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, took to Himes's stories and gave him his greatest success. In the mid-1950's he moved to Paris where he remained the rest of his life.


  1. Julia Browne said...

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for announcing the centenary of Chester Himes. I'll follow up your lead with a blog entry on him on my Spirit of Black Paris blog.

    I created a series of tours around AFrican-American history in Paris and it's always great fun to tell Himes' story. You're right that he's little known in the States but when I tell of his adventures/misadventures in Paris people really want to know more about him.
    If you ever get to Paris, look us up and I'll take you to where he wrote 'For the Love of Imabelle', where he moved into more luxurious digs, and where he hung out with the other expats.

    Julia Browne
    Walking The Spirit Tours


  2. Mark Troy said...

    Hi Julia,

    Thanks for coming by. I wish Himes was better known in the U.S. I discovered his books about ten years ago and have enjoyed them tremendously.

    Thank you for mentioning your blog. I stopped by for a look and added it to my blog roll so I'll be sure to visit again.

    Ah Paris! I hope to get there someday and when I do I will be sure to take your tour.