Cover image of "A Rage in Harlem," a classic Harlem detective novel

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

So, here’s Jackson, handing over a stack of money. “Hank was going to turn Jackson’s hundred and fifty ten-dollar bills into a hundred and fifty hundred-dollar bills.” He was “the only man in the world who possessed the chemically treated paper that was capable of raising the denomination of money.” As Hank rolls up the money in the “special paper” and slips it into the oven to heat up, Jackson’s woman, Imabelle, looks on. The oven blows up, a “US Marshall” dashes onto the scene, and everyone else flees, leaving Jackson to answer for the scam. Now you know you’re in for one hell of a rocky ride. And in A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. This classic Harlem detective novel is comedy of the highest order.

Harlem. 1956. A world apart.

Himes sets the stage for this comic opening with evocative prose. “Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church,” he writes, “perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub. That is Harlem.” It’s 1956, the Civil Rights Movement is in its infancy, and the Cold War rages around the world. But Jackson and the con men know little about any of that, and care even less.

A Rage in Harlem (Harlem Detectives #1 of 9) by Chester Himes (1957) 151 pages ★★★★★

Poster for the film adaptation of this classic Harlem detective novel
A poster for the 1991 film adaptation of this novel. The film starred Forrest Whitaker, Gregory Hines, Danny Glover, and Robin Givens. Only one of the detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson, appears in the film, and not in a starring role. Clearly, the film was only very loosely based on the book, even though Chester Himes was one of the screenwriters. For example, Danny Glover plays a character who doesn’t even surface in the novel. Image: TV Guide

This crafty fellow is a match for the crooks and detectives alike

Now, if you think the set-up that opens this novel is over the top, you’ll be amazed at what Chester Himes can come up with in the pages that follow. Because Jackson is not just the world’s number one chump. He’s wily, too, and resourceful to a fault. He may just be the driver and dogsbody for the H. Exodus Clay Funeral Parlor. But Jackson will prove a match not just for the crooks who’ve ripped off his fifteen hundred dollars but for Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones as well. And as he wends his way through the streets of Harlem, crossing paths with one colorful character after another, you’ll know Harlem in 1956 as well as you might have experienced it on the streets yourself.

Welcome to the world of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones, the two tough, streetwise detectives who would come to embody Harlem crime fiction for a generation of mystery readers.

About the author

Photo of Chester Himes, author of this classic Harlem detective novel
Chester Himes. Image: Gado – Library of America

Chester Himes (1909-84) is best known for the six books of the Harlem Detectives series. But he wrote a total of twenty-one books, most of them crime novels. He was born to a middle-class family in Missouri. At the age of sixteen, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and he attended Ohio State University until he was expelled for a prank. Soon afterwards, he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to the Ohio Penitentiary for a term of twenty to twenty-five years. He began writing short stories there in a writing career that spanned the years 1934 to 1980.

Himes was released on parole in 1936. He later worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles as well as a novelist. He relocated to Europe in 1952, where he came to know the likes of Langston HughesRichard WrightMalcolm X, and Picasso, Himes was married twice but left behind no children on his passing in 1984 at the age of seventy-five.

I’ve read and reviewed a number three other good books set in Harlem:

For examples of the work of a man some think was Chester Himes’ disciple, see Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) by Walter Mosley (The suspenseful first Easy Rawlins detective novel). Also, I reviewed (but didn’t enjoy as much) a later entry in the Easy Rawlins series, Charcoal Joe (Everybody’s favorite African-American detective).

You might also enjoy my posts:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.