Between 1957 and 1969, trailblazing African-American hardboiled crime author Chester Himes (1908-1984) authored an eight-book series starring black NYPD detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. The conventional wisdom is that the high-water mark of the series was the seventh installment Cotton Comes to Harlem from 1965.
The story opens with Reverend Deke O’Malley selling Harlem residents a chance to emigrate back to Africa for $1,000 per family. The reverend is quite a salesman and the money is pouring in - $87,000 in a few hours of making his sales pitch in the vacant lot next to the housing project. The festivities are interrupted by two white men with machine guns who pull up, shoot up one of the reverend’s men, and rob the $87,000 of Back-to-Africa money before making a clean getaway.
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are tough cops on the Harlem beat assigned the case of the violent heist. The two cops are riddled with scar tissue and healed bullet holes from previous adventures. They have good reason to be skeptical of the grifter reverend and his Back-to-Africa scheme, but they also have deep compassion for the poor blacks so disillusioned with American life that they’d be willing to spend their last dime to leave the nation behind and start a new life in Africa.
Himes really beats the drum on the disenchantment that Harlem’s blacks had with the American Dream. The tension between the white establishment - including white cops - and the poor blacks is also on full display in the novel and recalls many of the complaints and divisions we grapple with today. If these issues are interesting to you, Himes gives the reader a lot to chew on. If you already have way too much racial grievance talk in your life, Cotton Comes to Harlem is probably not for you.
As a straight-up violent police procedural mystery, the novel works quite well, particularly when you consider that the author honed his writing skills in prison. As the criminals who stole the money were making their getaway, they shoved a large bale of unprocessed cotton onto the roadway (thus, the book’s title). The mob of white bandits and unprocessed cotton in Harlem provide their starting point for a decent mystery for our heroes to solve.
Although I can recognize the achievement of Cotton Comes to Harlem, I didn’t love the book. It felt long and dragged a bit to me. The heroes were awesome, but I found most of Harlem supporting characters fairly cartoonish and unrelatable - particularly to a middle-aged, white, suburban guy in the 21st century. The comic relief scenes were kind of silly (although you won’t forget the paper bag scene), and the entire novel could have used a stronger editing hand. Chester Himes and the series are revered by literary scholars, but I suspect that’s more for the cultural significance than the actual greatness of the novels. But by all means, try the paperback for yourself as your mileage may vary.
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