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.
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.
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.
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 anti-black racism came entirely from the human imagination within about the last five-hundred years, 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.
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.
Sexiness is a warm gun (on a book cover anyway).
This cover of Peter O’Donnell’s Sabre Tooth, part of his popular Modesty Blaise series, shows Italian actress Monica Vitti as the title character, and it got us thinking about all the paperback covers that feature photos of women with guns. Of course, we realize that, as far as the gun-crazed U.S. is concerned, thinking of armed people as enticing or artistic may seem a little tone deaf, but we're talking about book covers, that's all. So we decided to put together a collection. We should mention that the Blaise series is worth reading if you’re looking for something along the lines of light thrills. It’s breezy and sexy as only 1960s spy literature can be, and Blaise herself is an interesting character, born in Greece, raised by a Hungarian scholar, trained in martial arts, and proficient in piracy, theft, and all around sneakiness. In Sabre Tooth she finds herself trying to thwart an invasion of Kuwait by an Afghan warlord. Below we have a dozen more photo covers featuring heat-packing women. As always with these collections, thanks to the original uploaders, most from Flickr, but particularly Muller-Fokker and Existential Ennui.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Battle of Stalingrad Begins
The Battle of Stalingrad, perhaps the most pivotal event of World War II, begins. It lasts for more than six months, spread across the brutal Russian winter, and ends with two million casualties. The Russian sacrifice reduces the powerful German army to a shell of its former self, and as a result Nazi defeat in the war becomes a simple matter of time.
1979—Alexander Gudonov Defects
Russian ballet dancer and actor Alexander Borisovich Godunov defects to the U.S. The event causes an international diplomatic crisis, but Gudonov manages to win asylum. He joins the famous American Ballet Theater, where he becomes a colleague of fellow-defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, and later earns roles in such Hollywood films as Witness and Die Hard.
1950—Althea Gibson Breaks the Color Barrier
Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour, and the first to earn a Grand Slam title when she wins the French Open in 1956. Later she becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
1952—Devil's Island Closed
Devil's Island, the penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana, is permanently closed. The prison is later made world famous by Henri Charrière's bestselling novel Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
1962—De Gaulle Survives Assassination Attempt
Jean Bastien-Thiry, a French air weaponry engineer, attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle to prevent Algerian independence. Bastien-Thiry and others attack de Gaulle's armored limousine with machine guns, but after expending hundreds of rounds, they succeed only in puncturing two tires.
1911—Mona Lisa Disappears
Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, aka La Gioconda, is stolen from the Louvre. After many wild theories and false leads, it turns out the painting was snatched by museum employee Vincenzo Peruggia.
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