Your To Be Read list (TBR) is a great place to add books to that you want to read, but it’s also a place where books go off to die. Chester Himes’s “A Rage in Harlem” languished in my TBR and I’m glad I finally took the time to read it.
Don Winslow said of Himes and a few other crime writers, “Those guys turned crime writing into music.” You’ll get no argument from me regarding Himes. There is a poetry in Himes’s words. Take this depiction of Harlem’s despair late in the book.
Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
The farther east it goes, the blacker it gets.
East of Seventh Avenue to the Harlem River is called The Valley. Tenements thick with teeming life spread in dismal squalor. Rats and cockroaches compete with the mangy dogs and cats for the man-gnawed bones.
“A Rage in Harlem” opens with Jackson handing over to several con men $1,500 in ten-dollar dominations to have it “raised” to $15,000 in hundred-dollar bills. As Jackson’s brother Goldy noted later:
It didn’t surprise Goldy that Jackson had been trimmed on The Blow. Many smart men, even other con-men, had been stung by The Blow. There was something about raising the denomination of money that appealed to the larceny in men.
Jackson’s brother Goldy, a drug addict and a confidence man, searches for the con men who ripped his brother off. Goldy discovers that the men are on the lam for the killing of a white man in Mississippi and he enlists the help of two detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones to track down and arrest these murderers and con men. Take a moment to enjoy these names: Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. These are some wonderful names.
Set in post World War II Harlem, Himes describes a world foreign to most white folks. From my perspective, not much has changed for Black Americans from then to today. A junkman approaches the scene of his cart about to be stolen by Jackson and the police closing in on the perpetrator, “The junkman knew the code. Jackson was trying to get away and he wasn’t going to be the one to rat on him to a white cop.”
Besides being a great detective novel, Chester Himes’s “A Rage in Harlem” is a sort-of go-to book that white people read when they want to expand the diversity of authors. Yes, I’m guilty as charged. Pull up a list of top crime novels, Himes’s book is likely to show up, usually as one of the few writers of color. This is not to take anything away from “A Rage in Harlem”, but it’s just the reality. Sadly, white readers do tend to tail off of reading Himes after finishing “A Rage in Harlem”. Look at the GoodReads ratings for “A Rage in Harlem” and it tops all of Himes’s books with 3,715 ratings. Himes’s “If He Hollers Let Him Go” is a distant second with 1,569 ratings. The rest of Himes’s books have a much lower count of ratings. Reading for diversity is more than cherry picking one Himes’s book.
The streets of Harlem are alive with the working class, criminals, junkies and prostitutes, each trying to make their way through their night or day. Though the mystery is solved early on, the setting of Harlem and Himes’s characters are what make “A Rage in Harlem” stand out as a classic.