Chester Himes’ Urban Slapstick: Surreal Harlem

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‘One joker slashed the other’s arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes — two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe’s canvas jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printer’s ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped about him to keep warm. They kept slashing away at one another like two rag dolls battling in buck-dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week’s newsprint instead of blood.’

Chester Himes’ ‘A Rage in Harlem’ (otherwise know as ‘For Love of Imabelle’) is a rarity in the crime fiction canon. It is a wildly comic interpretation of Harlem, painted with the hallucinatory colors of a Looney Toons cartoon – Tex Avery meets the lurid pulp paperback. As the above paragraph shows, the brutality of violence is given the comic, surreal reverse. And the characters seem to step out of the alternate pulp universe of Dick Tracy, amped up with an X rating and a never-ending haze of reefer smoke. Cross-dressing nuns, speedball prophets, triple-timing thugs, and the most memorable crime-fighting duo, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, make Himes’ Harlem Cycle novels a watermark of crime fiction. Slapstick and surreal and raw-knuckled, an urban circus put to the page, a playful fist to a pair of already-broken ribs.

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