Wednesday, August 25, 2021

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

The books you haven't read yet are often not the books you think they are.

I mean, that should be obvious, right? If you haven't read it, there are clearly things about it you don't know. The quirkier and older and more particular a book is, the more this applies. You might not know exactly what the deal is with the latest John Grisham legal thriller or Danielle Steel potboiler, but your random guess is going to be pretty close.

A thriller from 1957 set in Harlem and written by an ex-con, though: that could be very different that what you expect.

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard reprinted a bunch of Chester Himes books under the series title "Harlem Detectives" and with copy that emphasizes the two cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. It sounds like some kind of traditional mystery series: something happens, these two guys investigate it and presumably solve the crime.

A Rage in Harlem, the first book in the series, does not follow that model at all. Johnson and Jones don't even appear until about half-way through the book, and remain minor characters throughout. (One of them is less than that: he's in one scene and then out of the action entirely.)

This book is actually about a sap named Jackson, who we suspect would fall for every last scam or scheme in the world. We meet him in the process of being fleeced in a con called The Blow, which supposedly turns ten-dollar-bills to hundreds with special equipment in an ordinary stove. He loses all his money, thinks his girlfriend Imabelle is in danger (when she is clearly part of the scam), and sets off in entirely the wrong direction, causing all manner of havoc and trouble over the next roughly twenty-four hours.

Jackson steals, both money and a hearse from his employer. He enlists the aim of his brother, the vastly more street-smart Goldy, who can explain The Blow but can't convince Jackson that Imabelle was part of it. His increasingly frantic actions lead to a lot of death and mayhem in Harlem - but, as usual with fools, in the end, those are all things that happen to other people.

Jackson remains a sap to the end: he may learn better in a few very specific situations, but he's conned three or four other ways before the book is over as well. He is one of nature's born fools.

But Himes does not wink: other characters occasionally connect on how spectacularly gullible Jackson is, but the narrative never gives anything away. It's written in a taut thriller style, with perhaps Chandler-esque poetic turns of phrase to describe the colorful world it's set in. It is quick and runs at top speed and is packed full with great phrases, indelible characters, wonderfully inspired action set-pieces, and one-damn-thing-after-another pacing. Himes keeps track of a reasonably large cast, chasing them in different directions and bringing them back together in different permutations again and again - and he has a lovely knack for the perfectly right yet-one-more-complication moment.

A Rage in Harlem is pretty darn funny in spots, for all that it's about murderous con men and possibly even more murderous cops. It is not at all what I expected, but it was a hell of a ride. 

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