(Himes, Chester. The Real Cool Killers in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s. Library of America, 1997. The book was originally published in 1959.)
One of the nice things about being the virtual member of a book discussion group is that when all hell breaks loose on the work and home front, and I can't get the book read on time, I can still give everyone my opinion of it. I'm glad to have discovered one of the nice things about being in this situation, because most of the time I regret that I no longer live near enough to everyone to participate in this club in person. That being said, I will now say, my dear fellow CT mystery book club discussion members, it is a testament to how devoted I am to you and this book club that I managed to finish this book (then again, it could be my insatiable curiosity when a good "whodunit" is posed, and Himes certainly managed to give me that).
I first suspected something might be wrong when, instead of being shocked by a cop shooting and killing (what at the time I thought was) a young Arab for trying to douse him with perfume (in fairness to the cop, he thought it was acid, not perfume), I thought it was somewhat amusing. I was mentally laughing, which got me thinking about the opening scene of the book, in which a man's arm is chopped off with an ax and goes sailing across a night club. If not exactly amusing, although now it sort of did seem so, that scene at least had not bothered me as much as it should have, especially when the man insisted he wanted to go find that arm, because its hand was holding his knife. My first thoughts had been, "Well, that's weird. But it's also kind of edgy. Good. I haven't read 'edgy' in quite some time."
Had that axed-arm scene appeared in Hammett, say (whose The Glass Key we read earlier for this book group), or had it been put in the capable hands of Ross Macdonald, I would not have been having such thoughts. I would have been cringing. I would have been tempted to wrap my arm in gauze and call an ambulance. Had it been Ross Macdonald, I also would have been examining the reason -- certainly somehow related to my family or some screwed up romantic entanglement -- that I'd wandered into this bar, already drunk, looking for trouble. Instead, I felt completely detached, no real empathy, and as if I were in an episode of "Tom and Jerry."
I read on, somewhat hooked, but the more I read, the more the book just felt all wrong, somehow, and the less I could take any of it seriously. Perhaps Chester Himes meant to be funny. This must be satire. Was that old Grandma, oblivious to the fact that she had a street gang hiding out in the back of her apartment with a hostage, meant to be the sort of stereotype exemplified and brilliantly portrayed by some of our great masters of African-American comedy? See for yourself:
An old colored woman clad in a faded blue Mother Hubbard with darker blue patches sat in a rocking chair by a coal burning kitchen stove, darning a threadbare mans' woolen sock on a wooden egg and smoking a corn cob pipe. (p. 756)
Was this all dark humor, things like cops fighting each other on top of corpses, meant to ease the pain and horror of the violent underside of life in Harlem? If so, I couldn't find any hints to indicate such. I was so tempted to stop reading and look up Chester Himes and this book online, but no, I try not to do that before I write a blog post, because I want my reaction to a book to be just that: one reader's reaction, not tainted by all kinds of information from others.
That was how I started the book. By the time I'd finished it, I felt as though I'd been put through the wringer. As I kept reading, the violence became less "Tom and Jerry" and more "The Departed." I felt sick to my stomach, almost as if I were watching a snuff film, and talk about police brutality! I found myself, at times, rooting for the most despicable characters just because they were being roughed up so badly by the police. The violence became too real and unnecessary. (I'm not quite sure how I make that distinction between "necessary" and "unnecessary" violence in a book. Let's just say that when I read Ross-Macdonald-Who-Can-
Do-No-Wrong, what sticks out most in my mind is not the violence, even though it is there.)
I am sure that life on the streets really is this violent. I am equally sure that in 1959's Harlem, cops really did treat criminals this way (especially the white cops). My guess is that we probably haven't evolved as much as we like to think and that 2009 cops, when no one is looking, aren't much better. Nonetheless, I couldn't help my feelings of disbelief. Everyone was just so bad.
Eventually, some somewhat sympathetic characters did emerge, and I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen (oh yeah, and "whodunit"). The last ten pages or so of the book were like a completely different novel, and they left me wishing more of the book had been like this. They also gave me insight as to how someone like Richard Wright could have befriended Chester Himes, a fact picked up from the biographical notes in this text and that, up until the end, had seemed to me like Richard Russo befriending Tom Clancy. (Not that I've ever read an entire Tom Clancy novel and not that I think literary writers can't befriend hacks, but still...) Those last ten pages are more political, more of a real commentary on the state of things in the city at the time, and the final twist in the plot was definitely satisfactory to someone like me. When I read this,
"Kill it," the city editor of an afternoon paper ordered the composing room. "Someone else is already being murdered somewhere else."
Uptown in Harlem the sun shone on the same drab scenes it shone on every other morning at eleven o'clock, when it shone.
No one missed the few expendable colored people being held on their sundry charges in the big new granite skyscraper jail on the Centre Street that had replaced the old New York City tombs. (p. 866)
I found myself thinking that, although the writing left a little to be desired (how many times can "shone" be used in one sentence? Where was Himes's editor?), Himes really did have something to say, something that might not have gotten lost had he not been so intent on trying to make us feel every fist, every cut, every gunshot wound. Maybe he could have written a great book with just a few unjust cuts and punches. Then again, maybe I'm just asking for too much. Isn't this what a good deal of mystery/thriller writing is all about? Blood and guts and action? Isn't that why the genre didn't get much respect back in those days?
I'm somewhat suspicious that we, in our 21st-century search for gems everywhere, may be looking for gems where they don't really exist. Yes, there were some brilliant mid-twentieth-century noir writers (I am so tempted to give you a "diamonds in the rough" pun, but I won't). They deserve to be recognized. They deserve to be included as classics by such publishers as Library of America. However, others really were just schlock, and I'm tempted to think Himes may have been. I might have thought otherwise, might have given him the benefit of the doubt, but then he gave us that completely unrealistic, over-the-top fairytale ending, and well, then, visions of Tom and Gerry riding off into the sunset together faded into the credits.
I think I need to cleanse my palate now with some more Dorothy Sayers or P.D. James, whose Cover Her Face is the next selection for the group. The book club meets on May 8th, just in case there are others of you out there who might like to join me as a "virtual" member. I'd love to have some company.