The Real Cool Confidence of Chester Himes

Weekly Lizard

Tired of soft-hearted cops and moody detectives? Looking for crime novels that are bold, dark, and brutal? Then you’ll love the work of Chester Himes.

Born in Missouri in 1909, Himes started writing while serving a prison sentence for a jewel theft. He published nearly twenty books in his lifetime, including a series of books featuring a pair of tough-talking black detectives on the Harlem beat: Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Of the groundbreaking Harlem Detectives novels, The Washington Post wrote, “Himes never received the recognition he deserved for his books—they combine elements of George V. Higgins, Elmore Leonard, and Richard Stark, with a bleak vision all their own…. they are gritty depictions of black life in New York as much as they are expertly-paced thrillers.”

Six of the Harlem Detectives novels are available from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and have been given vibrant new covers: Blind Man With a Pistol, Cotton Comes to Harlem, The Crazy Kill, The Heat’s On, A Rage in Harlem, and The Real Cool Killers. The books are characterized with grisly violence tempered by sardonic humor. Take, for instance, this passage from A Rage in Harlem:

Two rough-looking men jumped about the floor, knocking over chairs and tables, cutting at one another with switchblade knives. The customers at the bar screwed their heads about to watch, but held on to their places and kept their hands on their drinks. The whores rolled their eyes and looked bored.

One joker slashed the other’s arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes—two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe’s canvas jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printer’s ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped about him to keep warm. They kept slashing away at one another like two rag dolls battling in buck-dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week’s newsprint instead of blood.

The customers laughed.

“How them studs goin’ to get cut?” someone remarked. “Might as well be fightin’ old ragman’s bag.”

“They ain’t doin’ nothin’ but cheatin’ the Salvation Army.”

“They ain’t tryin’ to cut each other, man, Them studs know each other. They just tryin’ to freeze each other to death.”

As Walter Kirn said in his New York Times review of The Real Cool Killers, Himes, “is not a writer who brakes for social niceties. The Real Cool Killers, like most superior crime novels, does not propose to change society or even to advance the art of fiction. Those are side effects. They are guilty pleasures for the guilty minded.”