Harlem Detective

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The Harlem Detective series of novels by Chester Himes comprises nine hardboiled novels set in the 1950s and early 1960s:

Their protagonists are two black NYPD detectives—Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson—whose names suggest the nature of their police methods and reputation. Jones and Johnson generally go easy with, and even tolerate, numbers operators, madames, whores, and gamblers; but they are extremely hostile to violent criminals, drug dealers, confidence tricksters and pimps. Himes says that they are tough, "but they never came down hard on anybody that was in the right".

One reviewer states:

Himes's two Harlem detectives are mythic heroes of sorts—indomitable forces of nature, their status as heavy-handed enforcers for the Man elevated to Harlem legends. So pervasive is the legend that their presence isn't needed to inspire awe or fear, mention of their name is enough. They are the law, the Man, the "mens", also a law onto themselves, using extralegal means to induce compliance. [1]

The "extralegal means" frequently include physical brutality in the case of men suspected of violent crime, and psychological torture and intimidation with women who withhold information: Coffin Ed threatening to pistol-whip a woman "until no man will ever look at you again"; or Gravedigger stripping another woman naked, tying her up, and making a hairline incision across her neck with a razor, then forcing her to look at the blood in a mirror.

Himes attempts to portray this brutality in such a way that the reader does not wholly lose sympathy with the detectives. For example, in the throat-cutting incident, the woman was a key witness in a case where a young girl was being held hostage and threatened with death by a street gang, and Himes says of Gravedigger's actions: "He knew what he had done was unforgivable, but he couldn't stand any more lies". Jones and Johnson get away with these methods because they manage to solve high-profile cases under great pressure and because the victims of their brutality always either get killed off by other criminals, or are found to be implicated in serious crimes, themselves.

Notwithstanding the above, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed have deep and genuine sympathy for the innocent victims of crime. They frequently intervene to protect their black brothers and sisters from the random and truly pointless brutality of the white cops (as portrayed by Himes). Finally, the detectives seem sympathetic because they are under constant pressure to prove themselves, as the only black detectives in a precinct where the other cops are openly racist; and the flip side of their brutality is their willingness to put their own reputations and their own lives on the line whenever the interests of justice require it.

There is abundant, and very effective, use of "black" (i.e., macabre) humor to lighten the mood of the stories, and they also contain many interesting sidelights touching on subjects as diverse as political corruption, jazz, soul food, and the sexual underside of Harlem life in that era.

Three films have been made based on the characters of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger: Cotton Comes to Harlem, Come Back, Charleston Blue and A Rage in Harlem.