The Real Cool Killers
By Chester Himes
Penguin Modern Classics, May 2011
This is perhaps the best of the several Chester Himes novels that came out in Penguin Modern Classics earlier in the year.
Pretty much all of them feature Himes’ series characters Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones and, as with the Laurel and Hardy films, it’s all about their relationship. The story is secondary. Coffin Ed Johnson sometimes goes a little bit crazy, he tends towards trigger-happy. His acid-burnt face makes him, in a sense, blacker than black; and it’s a small reminder – surely intentional on Himes’ part – of the original meaning of the Greek word ‘Ethiopia’. (And incidentally, ‘Ethiop’ was one of the earliest labels for a person of African descent.) Now Grave Digger Jones, he is the one who keeps a lid on things (or at any rate tries to) and he’ll go after Coffin Ed to sooth and calm him. On reflection, the relationship is akin to that between Mouse and Easy in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. At one point Himes had planned a novel in which Grave Digger killed Coffin Ed, but he couldn’t write it.
The novel opens with dancing and violence; and the violence is rendered as a sort of slapstick, a slashing spectacle, cartoon and carnival in nature. And surely it’s only a matter of time before Tarantino adapts and films a Chester Himes novel; they are such kindred spirits. Anyway, soon a white man is killed in Harlem and a teenage gang with a Moslem/Arab theme to their dress and demeanor is implicated. Himes’ Harlem is like Joyce’s Dublin. He lived in Europe when he wrote all these novels. They are an exile’s rememberings and imaginings.
‘Violence surged through him like blood.’ That’s a typical sentence and the predominant mood too, it has to be said. Everyone has anger as a pet, muzzled. On a leash mostly, though not always.
In some respects, the novel has dated: ‘coloured’ is the adjective of choice, not ‘black’ or – still a while to go yet – ‘African-American’. And ‘mother-raper’ is a compromise, although an improvement on Mailer’s lamentable ‘fug’. But in all other respects, in all essentials, this is inner-city America, the world of The Wire, and Himes got it down first. He planted the flag and this is his territory, his domain. Casual violence, the cancerous effect of drugs, race hate and the fallout from slavery, the oppression of women by men both black and white, the peer pressure and perverted pride of being in a gang, the improvised stupidity of career criminals: it’s all to be found here in The Real Cool Killers. Oh, and an allusion to the conflict in the Middle East for added resonance. Nasser was on the rise when Himes wrote it, so maybe he got the notion from that circumstance.
Personally, I concur with James Sallis, author of an excellent biography of Himes and a fine crime writer himself (he wrote Drive, now a Ryan Gosling film), in believing that The End of a Primitive is his best novel. I also have an admiration for Cast the First Stone, an early novel about a gay relationship in prison, later released in a much superior, unexpurgated form as Yesterday Will Make You Cry. You can’t really go wrong with Himes though; he was a writer of such sterling integrity. The Real Cool Killers is a fine novel, so too the others in the Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series.