Chester Bomar Himes (July 29, 1909 – November 12, 1984) was a famous African American writer. His works include If He Hollers Let Him Go and a series of Harlem Detective novels. In 1958 he won France's Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; two of his novels were made into feature films: Cotton Comes to Harlem directed by Ossie Davis in 1970 and A Rage in Harlem starring Gregory Hines and Danny Glover in 1991.
Himes attended East High School in Cleveland. While he was a freshman at Ohio State University in Columbus Ohio, he was expelled for a prank. Years later, he entered prison for armed robbery. In prison, he wrote short stories and had them published in national magazines. Himes stated that writing in prison and being published was a way to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates, as well as avoid violence.
In the 1940s Himes spent time in Los Angeles, working as a screenwriter, but also producing two novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and The Lonely Crusade that charted the experiences of the wave of black in-migrants, drawn by the city's defense industries, and their dealings with the established black community, fellow workers, unions and management. He also provided an analysis of the Zoot Suit Riots for the Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.
By the 1950s Himes had decided to settle in France permanently, a country he liked in part due to his critical popularity there. In Paris, Himes was the contemporary of the political cartoonist, Oliver Harrington, and fellow writers, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
Some regard Chester Himes as the literary equal of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Ishmael Reed says "[Himes] taught me the difference between a black detective and Sherlock Homes" and it would be more than 30 years until another Black mystery writer, Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins and Mouse series, had even a similar effect. Himes was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.
The first biographical treatment of Himes's life is "The Several Lives of Chester Himes," by long-time Himes scholars Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre, published in 1997 by University Press of Mississippi. Later, novelist and Himes scholar James Sallis published much more deeply detailed biography of Himes called Chester Himes: A Life (2000).
A detailed examination of Himes's writing and what has been written about him in both America and Europe can be found in "Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography" compiled by Michel Fabre, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan (Greenwood Press, 1992)
Mike Davies in "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles", describes the prevalence of racism in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, cites Himes' brief career as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, terminated when Jack Warner heard about him and said "I don't want no gotdamned niggers on this lot." (Davies, City of Quartz, pg 43, Verso 2006). Himes later wrote in his autobiography:
Chester Himes wrote about African Americans in general, especially in two books that are concerned with labor relations and African American workplace issues. If He Hollers Let Him Go — contains many autobiographical elements — is about a black shipyard worker in Los Angeles during World War II struggling against racism as well as his own violent reactions to racism. Lonely Crusade is a longer work that examines some of the same issues. Cast the First Stone is based on Himes's experiences in prison. It was Himes's first novel but was not published until about 10 years after it was written. One reason may have been Himes' unusually candid treatment — for that time — of a homosexual relationship.
Himes also wrote a series of Harlem Detective novels featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, New York City police detectives in Harlem. The novels feature a mordant emotional timbre and a fatalistic approach to street situations. Funeral homes are often part of the story, and funeral director H. Exodus Clay is a recurring character in these books.
The titles of the series include A Rage In Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill, All Shot Up, The Big Gold Dream, The Heat's On, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Blind Man With A Pistol; all written in the period 1957-1969.
Cotton Comes to Harlem was made into a movie in 1970, which was set in that time period, rather than the earlier period of the original book. A sequel, Come Back, Charleston Blue was released in 1972. And For Love of Imabelle was made into a film under the title A Rage in Harlem in 1991.
A useful companion to the two volumes of autobiography is "Conversations with Chester Himes", edited by Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner, published by University Press of Mississippi in 1995.
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