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Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes

Cotton Comes to Harlem

by Chester Himes

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This author was unknown to me -- a little too hard-boiled for my taste but well-written and fast-paced. If you like Philip Marlow and Sam Spade, you will like this ( )
  leslie.98 | Jun 26, 2013 |
A better work than the previous Himes book I read, A Rage in Harlem, if only because Grave Digger and Coffin Ed have developed into slightly more fully fleshed characters than they were in that earlier book. (Though occasionally they still come across as caricatures of tough-guy characters.)

The book's biggest flaw is something that is not uncommon of crime and detective books of a certain age, that being its treatment and depiction of female characters. ( )
  g026r | Apr 29, 2012 |
Himes's novel is hard hitting, edgy and vibrant tale of two black detectives trying to keep the peace in crime ridden, poverty stricken Harlem. They are asked to swallow their pride and baby-sit a ex-con preacher from his old gang, but first they have to find him..

Precursor to Walter Mosley's black PI and reminiscent in tone of Dashiel Hammett this is a great combination of hard hitting noir and exploration of racism in the 60s. Hime's anger imbues novel with something special, edgier and more real. There is a fantastic contrast of petty (and not so petty) criminals depicted against law abiding insidious racists who are trying to claw back plantation workers by any means necessary and this gives the story a greater depth than it would otherwise had. Don't get me wrong it IS also just a great story, with a multitude of fun, semi-flawed and deeply flawed low-life's populating the pages. Its setting is brought vividly to life and enhanced with lovely little details on the eras typical scams and robberies. I was also struck by the book having such a strong female protagonist who was not at all a victim but was just as bad and mean as the men. OK it is still a noir and therefore misogyny is rife but more recent writers should take notes (Mr Mosley I am looking at you).

Highly recommended to all crime lovers. ( )
2 vote clfisha | Jul 21, 2010 |
Himes knows crime. In fact, his writing career began from within the walls of the Ohio Penitentiary, where he spent some time on an armed robbery conviction. His dialogue practically snaps on the page, his characters--though little more than exaggerated paper dolls--are memorable, and he does not submit to that unfortunate tendency among writers of crime fiction to deliver only brief, single-clause sentences. In fact, it would serve him well to knock a few clauses off of some sentences.

My first introduction to Himes was a Grave Digger Jones/Coffin Ed short story in the American Library's Crime Noir collection. I was fairly confused by the characters--what was their motivation? why so much racial hatred?--and by what seemed to me to be a fairly straightforward plot. Suspense is not a Himes trademark. But the story remained with me, and when I hit a used bookstore, I keep an eye out for his work.

The story revolves around $87,000, which was first defrauded from a number of Harlem families by a wolf in preacher's clothing, then stolen by a group of five men driving a meat truck, and then lost to both parties through some unusual circumstances. The protagonists--Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed--are presented as the only men able to handle the mean streets of Harlem, and the streets of Harlem can only be handled by violence. The racial divide in this novel is sharp. Himes' hite police officers are generally embarrassed by cursing and sexually loaded comments. Himes' black officers are willing to beat witnesses for additional information. At one point, Coffin Ed declares, "The law was made to protect the innocent." That said, the violence feels tame by today's standards. Folks are shot, run over, and set on fire. Femme fatales are slapped, kicked, and tied to chairs. A man has his hat shot off three times. But again, today's standards have really messed with our definition of violence.

I can't recommend this book, but I can't write Himes off as a valuable addition to American crime fiction. I'll probably pick him up again.

Parental Warning: Book includes foul language, some sexual content. ( )
1 vote dan.and.anna.julian | Jul 8, 2010 |
Cotton Comes to Harlem has a somewhat complex plot because of all the characters involved - and I mean characters in the double entendre sense! In Harlem in the 1960’s, the Reverend Deke O’Malley is soliciting $1,000 payments from black families to participate in a Back to Africa Movement. O’Malley got the idea from Marcus Garvey (a historical figure whose own movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) included a Liberia project, launched in 1920. It was intended to build colleges, universities, industrial plants, and railroads, but was abandoned in the mid-1920s after opposition from European powers with their own plans for Liberia.)

But the Reverend has no intention of actually helping black folks start new lives in Africa; he is a con man with a police record. The only new life he is intent on starting is his own.

So far, he has collected $87,000. But then the money is robbed at gunpoint and O’Malley runs off. It is unclear if Deke has orchestrated the robbery.

Two black “ace” detectives, partners “Grave Digger” Jones and “Coffin Ed” Johnson, are put on the case. Jones and Johnson are recurring characters in Himes’ “noir black crime fiction series” – they appear in a total of eight books. “Grave Digger” has a “dark brown lumpy face…and the big, rugged, loosely knit frame of a day laborer…” “Coffin Ed” has an acid-scarred face from a past encounter with a hoodlum: “Afterwards he had earned the reputation of being quick on the trigger.”

Jones and Johnson are police in a down and dirty part of Harlem, and so the behavior and language are less than church-approved. (And in fact, the only part really dated in the book is the use of euphemisms for many of the obscenities skirted in the book.) Encounters with loose women are described in detail, and often entail violence.

The two detectives loathe Deke and all he stands for: a lack of concern and respect for his own people. The hard-bitten detectives want above all to get the money back for the 87 families “who had put down their thousand dollar grubstakes on a dream.” They knew that these families had come by their money the hard way:

"They didn’t consider these victims as squares or suckers. They understood them. These people were seeking a home – just the same as the Pilgrim Fathers. … These people had deserted the South because it could never be considered their home. … But they had not found a home in the North. They had not found a home in America. So they looked across the sea to Africa, where other black people were both the ruled and the rulers. … Everyone has to believe in something; and the white people of America had left them nothing to believe in. …”

As Jones and Johnson go about solving the crime, they take us on a tour of the black ghetto of Harlem in the 1960’s - a colorful amalgam of blues and booze, hustlers and peddlers, rascals and saints, and a large core of hard-working people trying to raise their kids and build a future.

The two detectives do not hesitate to use their police power in displays of force to get the information they need. Permeating their behavior is a steady confidence that they will find Deke, they will get the money, and they will restore it to the people who scrimped and saved for the chance of freedom.

A bale of cotton wends its way through the story like a mute Greek chorus, not speaking but standing in for the history of black Americans, from slavery and despair to hope and salvation.

Evaluation: This book has a lot of heart. These detectives love all their people – the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Although they appear to have mixed feelings about women - dividing them into the "traditional" two camps of mother or prostitute - within this framework they exhibit affection.) There is also a delightful, smack-your-head twist at the end that I, at least, never saw coming. If you can get past the R+ -rated sex and language, there’s a good story here, and an interesting look at an era of change for blacks in the 1960’s. ( )
1 vote nbmars | Aug 25, 2009 |
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First words
The voice from the sound truck said: "Each family, no matter how big it is, will be asked to put up one thousand dollars."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Originally published as the French translation of "Back to Africa": Retour en Afrique, [Paris] : Librairie Plon, 1964.
1st American ed. published: New York : Putnam, 1965.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0394759990, Paperback)

A classic entry in Chester Himes’s trailblazing Harlem Detectives series, Cotton Comes to Harlem is one of his hardest-hitting and most entertaining thrillers.
Flim-flam man Deke O’Hara is no sooner out of Atlanta’s state penitentiary than he’s back on the streets working the scam of a lifetime. As sponsor of the Back-to-Africa movement, he’s counting on a big Harlem rally to produce a massive collection—for his own private charity. But the take is hijacked by white gunmen and hidden in a bale of cotton that suddenly everyone wants to get his hands on. As NYPD detectives “Coffin Ed” Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones piece together the complexity of the scheme, we are treated to Himes’s brand of hard-boiled crime fiction at its very best.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:45 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Con man Deak O'Hara is out of the state penitentiary and back on the street working the scam of a lifetime. The $87,000 he has schemed to get has been hijacked and hidden in a bale of cotton. Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones are on everyone's trail in one of their most entertaining thrillers.… (more)

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