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.
From behind the microscope to in front of the camera.
You don't know U.S. actress Emily Yancy but she's been around for a long time. She started performing on television in 1963 and is still going strong as of 2018. Of her few cinematic efforts two were notable—the blaxploitation classics Cotton Comes to Harlem and Blacula. Her small screen appearances include Starsky & Hutch, The Mod Squad, and MacGyver.
The above photo is from 1961, and it was made when she was eighteen years old and competing in the Miss American Beauty Pageant, not be confused with the Miss America Pageant. Interesting story, she was a biology major and was working at NYU Medical Center operating an electron microscope when her coworkers persuaded her to give parading up and down a stage in a swimsuit a shot. She won Miss American Beauty, which gave her a chance to compete again in France.
She was sent to Cannes and finished second in the Miss Cannes Film Festival competition. After that Hollywood called and those boring old electrons were forgotten. Television, film, nightclub performing, modeling and a lot of travel followed. There's a lesson in this story, and maybe not one that should be taught to little girls—Forget science! Give us a little leg!—but you don't need a microscope to see that Yancy takes a great picture, and her career longevity suggests she made a good choice.
A Harlem detective learns the rules of engagement in pre-civil rights America.
Ed Lacy is credited by many as having created the first African American detective, Harlem gumshoe Toussaint Marcus Moore. Room to Swing is the novel in which this uniquely named character debuted. The set-up for the plot is also unique. The producer of an unsolved crimes television show called You—Detective! has located a fugitive she wants to arrest on air. She hires Toussaint to keep an eye on this ratings goldmine and make sure he's still around when she and her film crew are ready to spring their trap. Sounds simple, but in 1958 a black detective following a white man 24/7 will run into problems, considering he can't safely go to all the same places. Hell, he couldn't comfortably go to all the same places even today.
And if being a cop magnet isn't bad enough for Toussaint, having a white woman as a client is even more problematic, since they can barely be seen in public together. This is true even in New York and Ohio, where the action takes place. Although the northern U.S. was not part of the Jim Crow system, outside of large cities apartheid generally reigned. Small town Ohio is no different from Alabama for Toussaint. Even getting lunch or using a pay phone is often difficult. Speaking to a white man without calling him “Sir” generally leads to trouble, and being referred to as “boy” in return is standard practice. All of which raises the question: Why did this deep-pocketed producer hire a black detective at all? She has her reasons.
Room to Swing won Lacy the coveted Edgar Award, though we wouldn't say the book is brilliantly written. But it takes readers into fresh territory for a detective novel, and Toussaint is portrayed humanistically and empathetically. The book exemplifies the idea that it's possible for anybody to write about anybody else, regardless of race. Unfortunately, it wasn't a luxury that was often afforded to any but white writers back then, but it certainly should have been. All sorts of insights might have been possible. Room to Swing has plenty of those, and if you can find this Pyramid paperback edition with Robert Maguire cover art, all the better.
Well, technically I belong to Lester back there, but if you've got the money I'm available as a rental.
Sam Ross was the pen name of Samuel Rosen, a Russian born writer who was brought to the U.S. by his parents, attended school, joined the army, served during World War II, and turned both his immigrant and war experiences into journalism, fiction, and screenplays. He was immediately successful, and later shared his valuable insights by teaching at UCLA. You Belong to Me is a wrong-side-of-the-tracks tale of a married man who gets involved with another woman while his wife is out of town and finds himself in all sorts of trouble. The backdrop for his descent into craziness and danger is Manhattan, and often Harlem, which rarely fails in literature to provide writers the tools they need to craft a picturesque tale. Ross takes his protagonist through jazz clubs and all the rest. The book appeared as a paperback original from Popular Library in 1955, and the top notch cover art is by Owen Kampen.
It's not perfect, but it's pretty close.
The colorful magazine Mr. was published out of New York City by the imaginatively named Mr. Magazine, Inc., and was in the mold of male oriented publications such as Man's Life or Adventure for Men. This issue is from May 1953 and we grabbed it from the now idle Darwin's Scans website. Queen Cristina of Sweden pops up inside, which surprised us, considering we just learned about her for the first time in our lives less than a month ago and here she is again. You also get contemporary figures such as Billy Graham (the boxer), Kid Gavilan, and Hubert F. Julian, aka the Black Eagle of Harlem.
But the magazine focuses mainly on fiction and true adventure. We like the story about Berlin as a center for vice, with “horrible sex cults flourishing” in the post-war rubble. Ludwig Dietzler writes, “I am one of the few non-Berliners who have witnessed the orgies [snip] which thrive in basements, cellars, and other suitable hiding places.” Hmm... it doesn't sound all that bad to us. Elsewhere in Mr. you get beauty queens Carlyn Carlew and Trula Birchfield, as well as Apache dancer Yvonne Doughty. What's an Apache dancer? You'll just have to look. Scans of that and everything else appear below.
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.
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 goes 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.
Okay, who am I now? I'm you—when you got shitfaced last Friday, couldn't get it up, then barfed and passed out.
The woman on the cover of Ed Lacy's, aka Leonard Zinberg's 1952 novel Sin in Their Blood is supposed to be dead, but we kind of like our alternate interpretation that she's clowning around. Whether dead or joking, though, based on the art you'd never guess the book is about a rightwing organization extorting a black man who's passing as white—thus the sin in his blood—but that's exactly what's at the crux of this tale. Lacy, who was white, dealt with African American issues quite a lot. He's actually credited by some with inventing the first black private eye—Toussaint Marcus Moore. The first Moore novel, 1957's Room To Swing, won an Edgar Award—crime fiction's top honor.
African American subject matter was important to Lacy. From the earliest years of his career he explored racial issues, for instance in 1940's Walk Hard—Talk Loud, which is about a black prizefighter. During the 1950s he was married to a black woman and lived in Harlem, so he was always writing what he observed personally. Harlem is where he blossomed as a writer, where he lived much of his life, and where he died in 1968. Today Lacy is remembered as an important contributor to crime fiction, and we recommend his work. As a side note, the above cover would have fit perfectly into this collection, one of the most interesting groups we've shared over years, we think. And for good measure you can see another in the same style here.
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.
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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1968—Olympic Committee Suspends Carlos and Smith
The U.S. Olympic Committee suspends African-American track & field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos for saluting the crowd with raised, gloved fists during a medal ceremony at the Mexico City games. The salutes represented the black power and civil rights movements in the United States. Both athletes also received their medals shoeless to represent black poverty.
1933—Capone Sentenced to Prison
Chicago organized crime boss Al Capone is convicted of income tax evasion after all other attempts to tie him to an assortment of crimes, from the mass murder of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre to widespread violations of the Volstead Act, fail. He is sentenced to eleven years in federal prison and, cut off from the outside world while on Alcatraz Island, his power is finally broken.
1964—China Detonates Nuke
At the Lop Nur test site located between the Taklamakan and Kuruktag deserts, the People's Republic of China detonates its first nuclear weapon, codenamed 596 after the month of June 1959, which is when the program was initiated.
1996—Handgun Ban in the UK
In response to a mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland that kills 16 children, the British Conservative government announces a law to ban all handguns, with the exception .22 caliber target pistols. When Labor takes power several months later, they extend the ban to all handguns.
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