Colored people passed along the dark sidewalks, slinking cautiously past the dark, dangerous doorways, heads bowed, every mother’s child of them looking as though they had trouble.
Colored folks and trouble, Jackson thought, like two mules hitched to the same wagon.
A Rage in Harlem introduces the deadly duo Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, black detectives on the Harlem police force, but you wouldn’t know it as they spend most of the book in the background. Instead, the focus is on Jackson, an undertaker’s assistant who loses $1500 in a scheme to “raise” $10 bills to $100 bills using specially-treated paper. Jackson needed that money to make a better life for himself and his girlfriend, Imabelle, and so he sets out to get it back with desperate determination. He starts by stealing money from his boss, the undertaker, which he then loses in a craps game. The next morning, he seeks help from his brother Goldy, who spends his time swindling money out of the pious by impersonating a nun.
The naïve Jackson doesn’t know that Goldy’s a police snitch, and is just as oblivious to the fact that he just got swindled by three dangerous men wanted down South. Three wanted men with a big reward on their heads. Smelling the potential profit, Goldy leaks his brother’s plight to Gravedigger and Coffin Ed, who hope to use Jackson as bait—but the best laid plans of mice and men go very much awry, as they tend to do in this sort of book, and before long bullets are flying, knife-blades are flashing, and bodies are piling up. Throw in a trunk full of gold ore and a plot full of twists, and you have the makings of a fine novel.
The Newsweek blurb states that Himes “undertook to do for Harlem what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles,” and while it does capture a vivid portrait of Harlem’s seedy underbelly, Himes’ writing style and content is not as Chandleresque as I’d expected. Himes has his moments of brilliant imagery, and his style of levity leans less towards Chandler’s witty dialogue and more towards gallows humor. In fact, some elements would feel more at home in a Jim Thompson or David Goodis novel, bleak portraits of society’s underdogs rife with bloody murders and street-walking prostitutes and lots of blatant drug use (Goldy cooks up a cocaine and morphine speedball once or twice). Nobody trusts anyone here—given the charlatans and fakers like Goldy, I can’t blame them—though anyone will lie at the drop of a hat to a white cop looking to jail someone. Some of this still felt shocking even for a 1950s noir.
No, it’s Himes’ ability to capture Harlem’s culture and atmosphere that makes the novel so addictive; it holds its own as a strong entry in the long lineage of street lit. The setting is bold and evocative, and you can picture the crumbling brick facades and smoke-belching chimneys behind the distinctive characters. The way Himes offers social commentary in the approachable garb of a crime novel, and gets away without a hitch, is just masterful; he is pointed but subtle in how he approaches issues of racism and classism through characterization, such as his characters’ dialect and style. And while Himes is economical and sparse with his prose, the moments of beauty are blistering:
She held him at arms’ length, looked at the pipe still gripped in his hand, then looked at his face and read him like a book. She ran the tip of her red tongue slowly across her full cushiony, sensuous lips, making them wet-red and looked him straight in the eyes with her own glassy, speckled bedroom eyes.
The man drowned.
When he came up, he stared back, passion cocked, his whole black being on a live-wire edge. Ready! Solid ready to cut throats, crack skulls, dodge police, steal hearses, drink muddy water, live in a hollow log, and take any rape-fiend chance to be once more in the arms of his high-yellow heart.
A Rage in Harlem offers a potent combination: the hardest-boiled noir mixed with the darkest of comedy, to the point where it’d make an ideal Coen Brothers movie. (I have not yet seen the 1991 film version, so I’m not sure if it kept Himes’ bitterly sardonic sense of humor.) It won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière award in 1958, and for a damn good reason. At a time when very few black authors wrote noir, Himes penned a knockout—it’s a bonafide noir classic, with the power and energy of a freight train and a zigzag plot full of unexpected twists. It’s the kind of enjoyable yet compelling novel that’s oh-so-hard to put down, and I loved reading every minute of it. A Rage in Harlem is a perfect downward spiral of murder and dark comedy, and should be on every noir fan’s radar. I own just two other Himes novels, but I’ll add to that stack after reading this one…
Bonus: I don’t often do audiobooks, but I almost did for this novel after hearing so many rave reviews of the job Samuel L. Jackson did for this one.
Title: A Rage in Harlem
Variant Title: For Love of Imabelle
Author: Chester Himes
First Published: 1957
What I Read: Vintage/Black Lizard ebook, 2011
Price I Paid: $2 (#ebookdeal)
MSRP: $14 pb / $9.99 ebook
ISBN: 0679720405 / B00589AYKE