Saturday, September 1, 2012

"Real Cool Killers"by Chester Himes

The last week has been really insane. I don't have Internet at my house right now so the best I can do is my the Blogger app on my iPhone. It's been hard, what with all the photos for my blog being on my camera or laptop.

Anywho, Monday, the boy and I passed by my favorite bookstore, Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. While he looked for the latest book in The Song of Ice and Fire series (nerd) I browsed the tables. I picked up this gem of a pulp novel from 1959 by Chester Himes. Now, Himes wasn't just a two-bit scribbler like a lot of tee pulp novelists; he wrote "real" books, one of which I even read in my college courses. His novel "If He Hollers Let Him Go" is about the issues black servicemen faced in World War II. It still counts as gritty--there's plenty of violence and obscene language--but the characters are well-drawn.

"Real Cool Killers" doesn't have characters with the same depth and Himes' more literary work but it's still fascinating. Detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are called the police are alerted a white man is being chased through Harlem (along Lenox Ave for those playing along at home). When the detectives arrive the man is dead and three young black men, one holding a gun, and seven Arabs are standing around the body. One of the Arabs through perfume in Coffin Ed's face and gets himself shot because the detective had recently been disfigured with a shot of acid to the head. The man is dead before Coffin Ed even gets a whiff of th cheap stuff. In the fray, the Arabs and black men get away. The police are forced to form a dragnet to find the man who shot the "big", meaning important, white man. Coffin Ed is suspended and sent back to his wife and daughter in Queens.

This should be pretty cut and dry. The man with the gun is obviously the one who shot him. Of course, it's not; the fun only shoots blanks and the Arabs are actually black American teenagers dressed in turbans and fake mustaches. They're members of the gang the Real Cool Moslems. As far as gangs go, they appear fairly harmless. They rumble with a rival gang from the Bronx at times and they seem to spend a lot of time smoking reefers (that word always strikes me as quaint but I digress). A nice girl who's bored with her life and overprotective father might find the Moslems a nice way to rebel. Sugartit is one such girl and she's also Coffin Ed's daughter (I would cry if my friends called me Sugartit). She's Evelyn to Coffin, his sweet 16-year-old.

Himes lays out a well-paced yarn but what's most interesting to me, and , I suspect, Himes, is the social stuff. It's fascinating that here teenage rebellion borrows from the Muslim movement happening in Harlem, a place known for its storefront churches. It isn't just turbans and beards the kids use; they say praise Allah when good bad things happen. At the very same time, the members of the Moslems "Tom" or "clown" for the white cops, using the exaggerated accents and phrasing associated with blacks who, like Uncle Tom, wanted to please the boss.
Those scenes made me cringe. The late 50s weren't long ago so they bring up something I thought had been put to bed by then.

The detectives were something else I has trouble wrestling with. They're ostensibly the good guys but they don't always come off so nice. Before cracking open the book I expected they worked within the law but also on behalf of the community which had its share of trouble with white policemen. There were times when their condescension toward Harlem was harsh and out of place, especially next to descriptions of the crumbling tenements and the white officers who can't keep suspects straight because they're all black. They even say Harlemites make it hard for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed to keep the neighborhood safe for the whites who come slumming. Taken with irony, it's darkly funny, but taken at face value that same sentiment is disturbing is the way it resonates throughout the book; this murder is a bigger deal than the others because the victim is white and had money (he drives a beautiful green Cadillac). The quest to avenge the "big white man" changes when it comes to light he came to Harlem to get his jollies by paying to beat teenage girls--schoolgirls, not prostitutes--with a bullwhip. In a book that cost 50 cents in 1959, Chester Himes literally has us choosing between white privilege and the sanctity of black female purity. Wow.

Grave Digger is understandably horrified and disgusted. Interestingly, Himes trots out a series of black witnesses and suspects who aided and abetted the murder victim, complicating the us vs. them dynamic. But he's ultimately sympathetic. At the very end of the novel the police commissioner wonders aloud why so many people gathered on the street when the man was being chased through the street. Grave Digger answers, "every day in Harlem...the colored people see some colored man being chased by another colored man witha knife or an axe or a club. Or else being chased by a white cop with a gun, or by a white man with his fists. But it's only once in a blue moon they get to see a white man being chased by one of them. A big white man at that. That was an event. A chance to see some white blood spilled for a change and spilled by a black man, at that. That was greater than Emancipation Day...that's what Ed and I are always up against when we try to make Harlem safe for white people."


  1. I love to read but haven't done any reading in the noir genre. Sounds like an interesting read.

  2. wow. heavy but sounds fascinating. sounds like it would make a great movie.


  3. I love reading!! I normally will read just about anything when working an overnight shift, this definitely looks like a great read any time!!


Thanks so much for your comments!