Vintage Pulp Nov 12 2023
UNCONTROLLABLE FIRE
Only Coffin Ed and Gravedigger can put out a blaze this hot.


Above: an alternate cover for Hot Day Hot Night by Chester Himes, the 1975 edition from Signet Books. We talked about this thriller starring the fictional cop duo Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones in detail at this link. The art here is uncredited, as is this cover and this one by the same artist. Major demerits for Signet.

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Vintage Pulp Jul 13 2023
HARLEM HEAT
The climate there was always changed from what the rest of America knew.

Legendary author Chester Himes originally published Hot Day Hot Night in 1969 as Blind Man with a Pistol, with this Dell photocover edition featuring a beautiful model coming in 1970. Those two years are about as far forward as we're willing to go when it comes to fiction for our website (we often read newer books, but don't write about them). Elmore Leonard and Stanley Ellin likewise have pushed the upper boundary of our vintage perimeter, so Himes, of course, has received an exception too.

Hot Day Hot Night features a typically digressive Himes narrative that derives from the murder of a charlatan and a missing suitcase of cash. The dead scam artist, who called himself Doctor Mubuta, had convinced a ninety-something preacher named Mister Sam that an arcane formula could restore youth and virility. It sounds a bit crazy that anyone would believe that, but Himes puts it succinctly: It wasn't any harder to believe in rejuvenation than to believe equality was coming. It's also easier to believe when you have no idea what the ingredients in the concoction are, as revealed in this amusing exchange:

“What's that milky stuff floating around in it?”

“That's albumin, same stuff as is the base for semen.”

“What's semen?”

Mubuta doesn't answer that—smartly, we think. Other elements of the miracle mixture include baboon balls, bits of rabbit, eagle, and shellfish, some rooster feathers, and a “concupiscent eye.” Of course, this is total baloney, though we never find out what's really in the stew. Ingredients readily available around Harlem exclude eagles. Anyway, when the deal goes awry and Mubuta ends up stabbed to death, Himes' franchise detective duo Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are drawn into the investigation in what is their final official appearance here in the eighth novel in Himes' Harlem Detective cycle (they also featured in 1993's posthumously published Plan B).

We've described Himes as a sort of literary walk on the wild side, and he's as uncompromising as ever all these entries into his Harlem series. It will be interesting to see how his work is regarded as the years pass. Himes is a mirror image of writers like Chandler and Spillane, working along identical literary lines, casting nearly every character in his books as criminals or victims. But the expectations on Himes were different, because—indisputably—rules change according to who's playing the game, and what color they are. We recommend this book, and everything by Himes.
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Vintage Pulp Jan 8 2020
BELLE EPOQUE
A love blooms in Harlem.


Chester Himes' wild Harlem crime novel For Love of Imabelle, which we talked about last year, was originally published in 1965. This Signet edition is from 1974. We rarely like ’70s covers, but this is great, with its expansive afro used as a background for the text. The art is by the same person who illustrated this Himes cover, but both, unfortunately, are uncredited.

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Vintage Pulp Jun 30 2019
DREAMING IN COLOR
Himes' Harlemites take the prize.


Above is an unusual orange cover by an uncredited artist for Chester Himes' crime yarn The Big Gold Dream. We're Himes fans, but for us this wasn't as enjoyable as For Love of Imabelle or The Real Cool Killers, nor as well written, in our opinion, but the author's flair is undiminished in a tale about a lottery winner whose $36,000 cash prize is stolen. The most interesting character here is Dummy, a man permanently deaf from a beating and mute from having his tongue cut out, but whose disrespectful nickname belies his tenacity. And of course franchise detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones also star. There are caricatures many readers will find offensive, but that just makes Himes like most writers of the period. No matter what, with him you can count on a portrayal of Harlem that's quirky and insightful, and that's probably reason enough to read the book. It originally appeared in 1959, and this Signet edition dates from 1975.

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Vintage Pulp Feb 25 2018
THE REAL COOL WRITER
Chester Himes' tough love affair with Harlem continues.


A beautiful piece of George Ziel art fronts this Avon paperback edition of the Chester Himes' thriller The Real Cool Killers. The story here takes place during one night, as a white man is shot in the back on a Harlem street and the detective duo Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed make the scene. Ed goes off his head and is suspended, which makes 90% of the book Gravedigger's show. Was the victim an innocent bystander? Was the murderer who it seems to be? And what does Coffin Ed's daughter have to do with it?

Himes' descriptive flair is unique, his sense of place is vivid, his use of language is a highwire act, and his characters are interesting. Even their names are often amazing—Ulysses Galen, Sugartit, Shiek, etc. The Real Cool Killers appeared in 1959, and as we
noted when read The Crazy Kill, we're struck by the fact that—in that charged cultural era on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement—Himes doesn't bother writing a single sympathetic black character aside from his two cops. But in this way he's no different than other hard-boiled crime writers.

Himes moved black characters to the center. They drive the action from all sides rather than are merely affected by it. Research shows that books, films, and television shows in which black characters drive rather than are affected by the action tend to be less popular with white Americans. Seen in that light, Himes' success is a tribute to a unique skill set. In the same way the murdered man in The Real Cool Killers gets his thrills going to Harlem, readers in 1959 were able to visit a world not their own in Himes' fiction. He's more than just a real cool writer. He's a pioneer. 

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Vintage Pulp Jan 25 2018
IMA BELIEVER
A man in love can talk himself into anything.


Above is a top notch Mitchell Hooks cover for the classic Chester Himes thriller For Love of Imabelle, which is about a good-hearted but simple man named Jackson who's conned out of his life savings. Get this: he actually believes a man can change the denomination of paper money by cooking it in an oven. In go ten-dollar bills, turn up the heat, and—presto—out come one-hundred dollar bills. The scam, of course, is that the tens are pocketed before cooking and switched for counterfeit hundreds. Silly perhaps, but Himes wrote things he knew, so this con doubtless existed. The basic thrust of the plot is twofold: how to get the money back before Jackson's life is ruined, and whether our hapless hero's now missing girlfriend Imabelle is a fellow victim or a heartless participant in the scam. In Himes' hands everything unfolds with great style. Check this sentence:

Jackson looked up at the clock on the wall and the clock said hurry-hurry.

Only a unique talent could pull off something so jazzy. We were less impressed with his third novel The Crazy Kill—which was the first of his books we read—but with his award winning Imabelle we've gone back to the beginning of his Harlem cycle and he's got us hooked now, especially since he's actually written a conventional good guy. In The Crazy Kill there are few legitimately sympathetic characters, but in this one you can really root for poor overmatched Jackson. Himes' franchise detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones also play significant roles, and in fact Imabelle contains the defining moment of Coffin Ed's career. The story is topped off by a chaotic action movie style climax that's both thrilling and appalling. The Fawcett Gold Medal paperback at top appeared in 1957, and a later reissue as A Rage in Harlem came in 1965. And then there's the movie. Maybe we'll talk about that later. 

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Vintage Pulp Sep 27 2017
HARLEM SHAKEDOWN
Mess with a man and you've got a problem. Mess with his money and you've got a murder.


Above is a cover for The Crazy Kill, by Chester Himes, 1959, with beautiful art by George Ziel, someone we've technically never featured before, but who did a lot of work for Avon. We say we haven't technically featured him, but he painted the femme fatale at the top right of our webpage. It comes from a paperback by Bonnie Golightly called The Wild One. So in a sense we've showcased him every day for many years. And even more interestingly, when we narrowed down the various femmes fatales we were considering using in the site design, we ended up with three, one of which was the figure on the cover of The Crazy Kill. Not sure why we didn't choose her. In any case, we've had an affinity for Ziel's work for a long time.

And we've had an interest in Chester Himes for a while too. The Crazy Kill was our first Himes novel but it probably won't be our last. The book wasn't perfect, though. While the Harlem setting provides good atmosphere, the professional gamblers peopling the narrative are fascinating, and the two detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones are about as expected, the overall lack of sympathetic characters threw us a bit. In fact, we didn't like the two cops much either, but one scene won us over. During a previous investigation Ed had acid thrown in his face and was terribly scarred. But he presents an unfailingly tough façade—until a crook tells him he looks like Frankenstein's monster. Ed flies into a rage and beats the man, but then comes this:

Coffin Ed stuck his pistol back into the holster, turned and left the room without uttering a word, stood for a moment in the corridor and cried.

It turns out Ed is human after all, and from that point it was easier for us to be on his side. Though the writing has its flaws in our opinion, a central mystery that probably only Himes could have come up with kept us forging ahead: a preacher falls out of an apartment building window but lands in a bread basket, the type bakeries once used to deliver large orders. The preacher is fine and returns to the building, but somehow another man is found dead minutes later in the same bread basket. How he got there and why is utterly baffling. The Crazy Kill is weird, but fun and worth a read. In the meantime we may go back to the first Coffin Ed/Gravedigger Jones book For Love of Imabelle to see what these guys are all about.

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Vintage Pulp Apr 21 2017
INNER CITY BLUE
Life on the edge of a razor.


Above is a Japanese poster for the 1972 blaxploitation film Come Back Charleston Blue, starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as the Harlem detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. It was the sequel to the highly successful Cotton Comes to Harlem. The plot deals with the return of a legendary vigilante named Charleston Blue, who killed with a blue steel straight razor and is believed by some to be responsible for a series of recent slayings aimed at the local drug trade. He's supposed to be dead, but his casket is empty and his collection of razors has gone missing. Is he really back from beyond? You'll have to watch the movie to find out. Reviews were mixed, but there are some thrills and laughs, there's good location filming around Harlem and environs pre-gentrification, and the soundtrack by Quincy Jones and Donny Hathaway is a nice bonus. All-in-all, a middling effort, but certainly not a waste of time. Come Back Charleston Blue first played in Japan today in 1973. 

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Vintage Pulp Nov 25 2015
BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOR
Mid-century paperback art and the race to judgment.


Science has given humanity a lot over the centuries. What will turn out to be one of its most important gifts is its conclusion, widely disseminated beginning in 1950 but by today firmly proven thanks to DNA sequencing, that race doesn’t exist in any scientific way. Of course, many don’t consider that fact a gift—but many people also had serious problems with the revelation that the Earth wasn’t flat. The concept of race comes entirely from the human imagination, and anti-black racism dates from within about the last five-hundred years, created principally as a means to justify the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Seen in that light, scientific proof that race doesn’t exist represents not new knowledge, but a return to knowledge that was the norm before the drive for riches caused men to deliberately warp human thought as a means to cover for mass cruelty.

As an imaginary construct, however, race is persistently powerful, which the collection of paperback fronts above and below strongly illustrate. We weren’t around when any of these were written, but their existence reveals a surprisingly (to us) lively market in such material. Were all the books you see here of great worth? Certainly not. But even with their flaws—particularly woman-blaming for rape—these books are artifacts of a fascinating racial dialogue that we suspect, on balance, was beneficial. We have fifty examples and there are at least a couple dozen more we didn’t include (Black Dicks for Marcie was just a bit too out there). Some of those pieces will pop up later in a slightly different themed collection. In addition to what you see here, we also put together a related group last year featuring an Asian theme and you can see that here.

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Vintage Pulp Oct 22 2015
HARLEM IMPROV
Harry Bennett channels Himes and Harlem.

Chester Himes’ cycle of Harlem detective fiction spanned eight complete novels, and one unfinished effort, with five of the paperback editions illustrated by Harry Bennett, whose work you see above. Himes is world renowned, Bennett somewhat less so, but he was an award winning artist who illustrated hundreds of paperbacks during his career. We were reminded of him by a recent entry on Killer Covers, and remembered how much we like these pieces. In contrast to his lushly rendered romance covers, or more conventional crime novel art, these have an almost spontaneous quality. Publisher input usually has quite a bit to do with it, but we suspect Bennett was also influenced by Himes’ writing and the Harlem setting, and as a result produced this jazzy art for a jazzy novelist. Excellent stuff. 

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Next Page
History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
April 22
1912—Pravda Is Founded
The newspaper Pravda, or Truth, known as the voice of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, begins publication in Saint Petersburg. It is one of the country's leading newspapers until 1991, when it is closed down by decree of then-President Boris Yeltsin. A number of other Pravdas appear afterward, including an internet site and a tabloid.
1983—Hitler's Diaries Found
The German magazine Der Stern claims that Adolf Hitler's diaries had been found in wreckage in East Germany. The magazine had paid 10 million German marks for the sixty small books, plus a volume about Rudolf Hess's flight to the United Kingdom, covering the period from 1932 to 1945. But the diaries are subsequently revealed to be fakes written by Konrad Kujau, a notorious Stuttgart forger. Both he and Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann go to trial in 1985 and are each sentenced to 42 months in prison.
April 21
1918—The Red Baron Is Shot Down
German WWI fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, sustains a fatal wound while flying over Vaux sur Somme in France. Von Richthofen, shot through the heart, manages a hasty emergency landing before dying in the cockpit of his plane. His last word, according to one witness, is "Kaputt." The Red Baron was the most successful flying ace during the war, having shot down at least 80 enemy airplanes.
1964—Satellite Spreads Radioactivity
An American-made Transit satellite, which had been designed to track submarines, fails to reach orbit after launch and disperses its highly radioactive two pound plutonium power source over a wide area as it breaks up re-entering the atmosphere.
April 20
1939—Holiday Records Strange Fruit
American blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday records "Strange Fruit", which is considered to be the first civil rights song. It began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, which he later set to music and performed live with his wife Laura Duncan. The song became a Holiday standard immediately after she recorded it, and it remains one of the most highly regarded pieces of music in American history.
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