A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
I’ve been meaning to read Chester Himes for years now. Somehow, I’ve found him hard to come by. Thomas Ford is the first library I’ve worked at that carries his books—and that’s only because I ordered them myself.
Expectations had built during the wait. All I’d ever read about Himes was high praise, including numerous comparisons to some of the noir greats like Raymond Chandler. So, picking up our copy of Cotton Comes to Harlem on a whim, when I wasn’t necessarily even in the mood for a crime story, could have been a big letdown. But to my surprise Himes lived up to the hype, and even surpassed it in some ways.
That’s not to say there weren’t any flaws. The “mystery” of the story, I suspect, was just as much a mystery to Himes as it is to his readers, and the solution is hardly a solution at all. To my mind that’s only in keeping with noir tradition, and doesn’t at all detract from the real heart of this novel: character, action, and a gloriously rendered setting.
Our detectives are Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones, who burst into the book like a couple of Dirty Harrys, only grumpier. But subtly and surely we find ourselves getting to know the pair—mostly through their banter, but occasionally through short glimpses of their personal lives—and before we know it they’ve become truly sympathetic. Most of the other characters are one dimensional, but they’re still compelling, almost Dickensian creations: a lecherous con-man minister, a short tempered police commisioner, a “blind” beggar who is one of the detectives’ most observant informers, a cart pushing homeless man oblivious to his central role in the crime, and (best of all) a dastardly villain who is nothing more than a head to toe parody of Colonel Sanders.
People even a run-of-the-mill setting with these characters and you’d still have a decent book, but what makes Cotton truly special is Himes’ Harlem. It lives and breathes. I’m remembering the picnic scene that opens the book like I was there, and the junkyards, and dive bars, and mean streets too. We feel the calm and peace of a church going Sunday in Harlem, and we get the panic of sudden violence in the street, or of marching crowds and political upheaval too. Plus there’s a barbecue joint that makes my mouth water to think about. Hard to judge without some hindsight and a few more of the Coffin Ed and Grave Digger books under my belt, but it seems to outstrip Chandler’s L.A. in pure sense of place.
Well, enough going on about it. I loved it, and if you like hardboiled crime even a little, you’ll love it too.