Monday, September 23, 2013

Crime noir comes to Harlem

I found myself digging through the Chester Himes collection at amazon.  He is now included in Penguin Modern Classics,with a half dozen titles re-released a couple years back, including his debut novel, For Love of Imabelle (1957), better known as A Rage in Harlem.  I'm not sure if he was the first African-American crime writer, but his books hold up well over time.

Before the lurid crime novels, Himes wrote an account of his prison life in Yesterday Will Make You Cry.  It was greatly edited and reduced to pulp fiction in its original edition, Cast the First Stone in 1952, but has since been restored and re-published by Old School Books.

It surprises me that the Library of America hasn't released an omnibus edition of his work, especially since it has recognized other crime writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and David Goodis.  But, Mario Van Peebles took it upon himself to re-release Grimes works in omnibus editions back in the late 90s, after the success of the film, A Rage in Harlem.

Probably Grimes' most famous work remains Cotton Comes to Harlem, largely because of the highly successful screen adaptation with Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jaques as Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, who featured prominently in many of his novels.  The movie was more played for laughs than grit, including Redd Foxx and Cleavon Little. The lead characters actually date back to early magazine pieces he wrote for Abbot's Monthly in the 1930s, the time which many of his stories are set.  

Grimes took pulp fiction to an extreme that few other writers have been able to match.  His colorful crime novels prefigure blaxploitation films of the 70s and the exploitation films by Quentin Tarantino in the mid 90s. You figure Mario Van Peebles came to Chester Himes through his father Melvin, who directed a film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, which is arguably the best film of the genre.

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