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Youngstown OhioA Rage in Harlem (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Published: 17 December, 1989
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Author: Chester Himes
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Youngstown Ohio A great romp!

This novel is sort of a "Sting" in Harlem. Instead of Redford and Newman, Himes populates his story with a cast of characters that are, well, characters. The plot is great -- you are always wondering what is going to happen next. However, the humor is the best. My wife and I read the book out loud and there were a couple of spots where we had to stop because we were laughing so hard.

The novel is set in 1950s NYC -- read "real cool." There are some pretty interesting asides about what it was like to be black back the. However, this is not a preaching book. Himes just provides context.

Himes is at his best in descriptions. Colors leap out of the text. Walks -- always with a wiggle or gait -- stride through the book. Keep an eye out for a wonderful passage that uses the arrival of a train to describe the conditions of Harlem.


Whether or not you're a fan of detective mystery/caper/police procedural fiction--writer Elmore Leonard is considered a living master--there's a treasure of good reading and fantastic storytelling in store when you crack open one of Chester Himes' so-called "Harlem domestic" series. Take the case of the first one, A RAGE IN HARLEM, one hell of an introduction.

Working stiff Jackson may be the squarest square in Harlem. He's gullible, fearful, a bit superstitious and dense, but not stupid--he's Everyman as a member of the black workingclass. He also has one overriding passion: his woman, Imabelle, a down-home high yellow knockout with a shadowy background.

Plucked clean of his savings by black grifters running an old con game, deep in trouble with his boss and his landlady, Jackson's more worried that Imabelle's somehow in peril. He enlists his estranged street-wise scam artist twin, Goldy, to help find and rescue her. Meanwhile, hard-rock Harlem police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, themselves death on con artists, are also hunting the gang, wanted for murder in Mississippi. They use Goldy and Jackson to corner the gangsters in their hideout when one throws acid in Coffin Ed's face, triggering a whirlwind of bloodletting and madcap pursuit. The action is fast and furious, building to a spine-tingling climax and wry, incredulous close.

Black crime fiction didn't begin with Chester Himes, but nobody has done it better. He gives you more than your money's worth: snappy pacing, rapid-fire action. His short, staccato paragraphs are like cinematic quick cuts, accenting details of character, scene, mood. The range of detail--how people look, what they wear, eat, think; where they come from; particulars of location--is meticulous. You SEE and SENSE this world, this Harlem perhaps removed in time (but not in essence) from today, clearly. One thing I definitely like and respect is that his characters SOUND like real people; his black characters, particularly, sound like black folks I've known all my life.

This points up Himes' (who considered himself a serious artist and social critic) point of view--to try to be accurate and fair. To try, even within the constraints of a genre he scorned--pulp fiction--to turn the ugliness and suffering, the "absurdity" (as he himself put it) of life in a Northern black ghetto into a work of certain beauty and truth.

Well, beauty, or aesthetic, may seem too large a notion for a paperback detective novel, but Himes' sheer craft pulls it off. The book is well-written, richly character-driven, suspenseful. It's alternately side-splitting funny and bone-chillingly gruesome, a thriller you'll probably finish in one sitting. When you do, you'll probably want more. Fortunately, there is.

Youngstown Ohio Like James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, or Walter Moseley

This is classic noir crime fiction. The plot revolves around a perennial patsy named Jackson, his fortuitously named girlfriend Imabelle, and their involvement in a get-rich-quick scheme. If you've read any crime fiction, you know how well the scheme works out. Pretty soon, Jackson is left to survive by his wits, which is unfortunate, because Jackson ain't exactly overflowing in the "wits" department. Even more unfortunately for Jackson, the con men, brothel owners, drug addicts and policemen surrounding him are not only smarter than he is, but more violent as well -- particularly Himes's recurring detectives, "Coffin Ed" Jones and "Grave Digger" Johnson.

This book has great characters and vivid prose. I highly recommend it.

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