The continuing stooooooory of how the Grand Vizier puts his feet up and lets other people talk some sense for a change. This week: Adrian McKinty (right) on Chester Himes’ Harlem.
Cotton Comes To Harlem
“For the six years that I lived in Harlem, real estate brokers and landlords continually tried to convince me that I actually resided in a neighbourhood called Morningside Heights. The fact that I was on 122nd and Amsterdam only three blocks from Harlem’s main drag and on no “height” whatsoever did not deter them. Back then the very name “Harlem” struck terror into the hearts of even the most fearless Manhattan property sharks.
“This was not always the case. In novelist Henry Roth’s day Harlem was a middle-class Jewish neighbourhood and then it was Irish and finally in the 1930’s black immigrants arrived from the South. After this last migration Harlem was a trendy place to visit, with its jazz clubs and cool night life, but decline set in during the race riots of the 1960s and by the 1970s crime was endemic and white people began to avoid Harlem at all costs. It became the stereotypical black ghetto in mainstream films such as The French Connection or Live and Let Die and the reality wasn’t that far from the cinematic excesses.
“When I first moved to Harlem in the summer of 1993 things were at their nadir. Crack ruled the streets and murders in New York City were running at about two thousand a year. This wasn’t getting 9/11 size headlines because no one really cared about black on black violence in African American neighborhoods like Bed-Sty, the South Bronx and Harlem. Caucasians seldom went north of 122nd Street and almost never to 125. I was blissfully unaware of this though and there were times when I was the only white person at the fast A Train stop at 101 East 125th or the empty Manhattanville post office on 365 West 125th.
“I was also sometimes the only person at all in the excellent George Bruce Branch of the New York Public Library on 125 and Amsterdam. And it was there that I discovered their collection of Harlem crime fiction by Chester Himes: a half shelf of first editions and paperback originals begun while Himes was living in France. Each one could be finished in a few hours, but best savoured slowly from the quiet second floor of the George Bruce looking down 125 to Broadway and the steamy Hudson River beyond.
“Chester Himes (right) was a renaissance man. The son of college professors, he had done hard time in prison for armed robbery, worked in the shipyards during the war, and hobnobbed with the African American literary elite in Paris in the 1950’s. He wrote many novels but is best remembered for his two black NYPD detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones who walk the mean streets of Harlem and are actually quite mean themselves - though usually in a good cause.
“There are nine books in the series and they can be read non-sequentially. My favourite of them is THE REAL COOL KILLERS but it might be too violent for some readers and probably newbies should start with the most famous - COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, which was made into a blaxploitation film of the same name.
“COTTON COMES TO HARLEM begins with ex con Deke O’Hara’s brilliant scheme to swindle money for a back-to-Africa movement from poor Harlemites. In the middle of his eccentric pan-African rally, white gunmen steal $87,000 and make off with it. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are put on the case and of course - typical of the series - the plot they fall into is fast, breezy and completely unpredictable. The book is so short that all further details would be spoilers but you can expect some chases, escapes, shootouts and ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that would make Dick Cheney proud.
“Himes’s descriptions of Harlem are terse, laconic, spare and funny; appropriate for a district that has fallen on hard times. He lets the facts speak for themselves: the poverty, drug dependence, the absence of male role models, and above all a deep, basic humanity which flows from every tenement room, down the bustling apartment stairs, out onto packed, gossipy building stoops and finally into the pulsating, dangerous streets.
“In COTTON and all the series, Harlem is a big village where everybody knows everybody else, where people borrow money and groceries and sometimes weapons from each other, where playground kids have inside information on the local crazy or the local perv and old men sitting in street-side armchairs crack wise about pimps who suddenly have a lot of extra spread.
“Himes’s Harlem is a universe in itself, as rich for me as Chandler’s LA or Conan Doyle’s London and there’s a sweetness and innocence there too which also reminds me of Baker Street circa 1895. For all its poverty and random violence you’d far rather live here than among the crooks, scam artists, jazz musicians and dreamers than downtown among the aloof WASPs of the Upper East Side or the oh-so-hip intellectuals of SoHo or Brooklyn Heights.
“Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed love the people they have sworn to protect and even though they work for the white man, they never do the white man’s dirty work.
“COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is not a perfect book; some of the characters are reed thin and merely mouthpieces to move the plot along, but move it does and when we’re finally done the sense of place lingers long in the memory. When I’m homesick for Harlem - something that happens surprisingly often - I read a few pages of Chester Himes and forget the fact that the Columbia University bulldozers are set to roll all over my old stomping ground and instead lose myself in soul food restaurants, smoke-filled blues clubs, rickety fire escapes and basement speakeasies - a world lost in time and space in the gentrified, 21st century New York sameness so beloved of landlords and real estate agents.” – Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty’s THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD is published in paperback on June 12.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.