Coffin Ed Johnson & Grave Digger Jones

Created by Chester Himes
(1908-84)

“We just get pissed-off with all the red tape…We just want to get down to the nitty-gritty.”
Grave Digger in Blind Man With a Pistol

“I don’t want no niggers on this lot.”
Jack Warner‘s alleged outburst, before firing Himes

One of the true masters of the genre, Chester Himes “could write like a dream,” according to Art Bourgeau in The Mystery Lovers’ Companion, “and his prose was like music.” Himes, a black American, served six years of a twenty year sentence in an Ohio penitentiary for armed robbery, where he discovered the work of Dashiell Hammett, John Carroll Daly, Ernest Hemingway and their hard-boiled ilk, and vowed to write books that would, in his words, “tell it like it is.” While in prison, he managed to sell a few stories to national magazines such as Esquire.

Upon his release in the mid-thirties he married Jean Johnson and struggled to find his way, trying to make it as a writer but also working a variety of jobs. He published several well-received but not necessarily lucrative semi-autobiographical novels, and the couple moved to Los Angeles in the forties, where Himes worked briefly for Warner Bros. as a screenwriter.

But he continued to write, and eventually — despite never living or spending much time there — he became associated with the Harlem literary movement, making the acquaintance of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, but mostly surviving on assorted odd jobs, grants, and loans from friends.

Growing increasingly disillusioned and frustrated, he left Jean behind and moved to Paris in the early fifties, eventually getting married again, to Lesley Packard, and at the urging of Serie noire publisher Marcel Duhamel began writing a string of what he called his “Harlem domestic detective stories” and what came to be known as the “Harlem Cycle.” All but the final novel in this series, Blind Man with a Pistol, were originally published in French, although Himes wrote all of them in English.

All but one of the series featured hard-boiled black Harlem cops “COFFIN” ED JOHNSON and “GRAVE DIGGER” JONES. Yeah, cops. But their inclusion on this site is intentional. They might have been bona fide members of New York’s Finest, but they sure acted like a couple of freewheeling private eyes. And a couple of noticeably corrupt and occasionally vicious private eyes at that — their M.O. included shooting people, busting heads and extracting confessions through brutal intimidation. In one story, Coffin Ed threatens to pistol-whip a woman “until no man will ever look at you again”; in another Gravedigger strips a woman naked, ties her up, and threaten to slit her throat.

The two rogue cops appeared in a string of comical, tragical, preposterously violent novels, starting with 1959’s A Rage in Harlem (first published in French as La Reine des Pomme as Serie noire #419), which won the Grand Prix de la Litterature Policière.

The titles of the books in the “Harlem cycle” (A Rage in HarlemThe Real Cool KillersThe Crazy KillAll Shot Up; Run, Man, RunThe Big Gold DreamThe Heat’s OnCotton Comes to Harlem and Blind Man with a Pistol), all written between 1957–1969, pretty much tell the story: Harlem is depicted as a surreal and at times nightmarish place, full of drugs, booze, sex and violence, where good people are constantly betrayed by their own greed or gullibility — or both. Con artists abound, often cloaked in the guise of respectability: clergymen, politicians and even funeral directors, such as H. Exodus Clay, who appears in several of the books. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger aren’t out to “clean up” their turf so much as just make sure nobody gets too hurt. So they let the gamblers and whores slide on by, but show no mercy to the strong arm men, dealers, scam artists and the like. They’re tough, but as Himes once said, “they never came down hard on anybody that was in the right.”

Not that there’s no light in these books — the brutality (and that’s what is is) is balanced by plenty of black (sorry) humour, and shrewd digressions on everything from music and soul food to politics and sexuality.

FILMS

A couple of attempts to capture Himes’ unique vision on film were made, with arguable results, right at the beginning (and possibly influencing) the seventies’ blaxploitation boom. Raymond St. Jacques played Ed and Godfrey Cambridge played Gravedigger in Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970) and Come Back, Charleston (1972), prefiguring Shaft, Super Fly and all the rest by a year or so. Fun, but played mostly for shuck-and-jive laughs.

1991’s A Rage in Harlem hovered closer to the source, really capturing the essence of Himes’ work and his world, despite George Wallace as Gravedigger and Wendell Pierce as Ed having relatively small parts.

“The movie has a nice period atmosphere, which is remarkable, since it was shot with Cincinnati doubling for Harlem,” Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, “and it captures some of the texture of Himes’ novel, his love of characters who use their wits to outsmart each other. What’s best in the movie is the chemistry between Whitaker and (Robin) Givens, who is surprisingly effective in her first feature role.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A controversial figure even now, Himes continues to inspire moderm crime writers, in particular Walter Mosley, Robert Skinner and James Sallis, who have all acknowledged Himes’ influence, and all had their own detective fiction compared to Himes’ work.

But Himes’ life, like his fiction, is hard to pigeon hole. It was certainly eventful, and definitely colourful, and the two volumes of memoirs he left us, The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), don’t make it any easier to sort out the man and the myth. Himes could be both insightful and infuriating, full of both raw contradictions and polished prose, brutally honest at times but occasionally self-serving as well, all of which makes him, like many other writers (Chandler and Hammett come immediately to mind) easier to respect as an artist than as a person. So, trust the art, not the artist.

But do yourself a favour — do read his books. They’re worth it.

THE EVIDENCE

  • “Sit up straight…. You’ll have plenty of time to lie down if I find out you’ve been lying.”
    — The Real Cool Killers
  • “Colored folks and trouble, Jackson thought, like two mules hitched to the same wagon.”
    — A Rage in Harlem

UNDER OATH

  • “Funny, acidic, tight, and cool. Himes was the kind of writer who didn’t try to knock you out with every punch. He just saved his best stuff for when he had you on the ropes.”
    — Peter Blauner, on A Rage in Harlem, in naming his Top Ten Books
  • “Himes’s Harlem saga vies with the novels of David Goodis and Jim Thompson as the inescapable achievement of postwar American crime fiction.”
    — The New York Times
  • “Himes undertook to do for Harlem what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles.”
    — Newsweek
  • Chester Himes certainly opened doors for the types of mysteries I write and it seems like I’m still following him around, discovering in what ways his life has touched mine, decades after he passed away in 1984. I love how he wrote with such pungency about the African American community; there’s so much humor, energy and gravitas in his mysteries. I recently learned that he took care of a Nisei woman’s home in Boyle Heights, adjacent to East Los Angeles, during the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. Our parallel paths have overlapped.”
    Naomi Hirahara
  • “One of the most important American writers of the 20th century. . . . A quirky American genius.”
    — Walter Mosley

THE HARLEM NOVELS

 

  • COTTON COMES TO HARLEM | Buy this DVD Watch it now!
    (1970)
    97 minutes
    Based on the novel by Chester Himes
    Director: Ossie Davis
    Starring Raymond St. Jacques as COFFIN ED JOHNSON
    and Godfrey Cambridge as GRAVE DIGGER JONES
    Also starring Calvin lockhart, Judy Pace, Redd Foxx, Emily Yancy, Cleavon Little
    It’s tempting to tag this as an early example of the blaxploitation sub-genre, but with its broad comedy, it recalls Car 54, Where Are You? as much as it prefigures Super Fly or Shaft. It hasn’t aged well.
  • COME BACK, CHARLESTON BLUE | Buy this DVD
    (1972)
    100 minutes
    Based on the novel The Heat’s On by Chester Himes
    Director: Mark Warren
    Score by Donny Hathaway
    Starring Raymond St. Jacques as COFFIN ED JOHNSON
    and Godfrey Cambridge as GRAVE DIGGER JONES
    Also starring Jonelle Allen, Adam Wade, Peter DeAnda
    Equally dated, but this one has Donny Hathaway on the soundtrack.
  • A RAGE IN HARLEM | Buy this DVD Watch it now
    (1991, Miramax)
    98 minutes
    Based on the novel by Chester Himes
    Written by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford
    Directed by Bill Duke
    Produced by Stephen Woolley and Kerry Boyle
    Music by Elmer Bernstein
    Starring Forest Whitaker as Jackson
    and Robin Givens as Imabelle
    With George Wallace as GRAVE DIGGER JONES
    and Wendell “Stack” Pierce as COFFIN ED JOHNSON
    Also starring Gregory Hines, Zakes Mokae, Danny Glover, Badja Djola, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, James Spinks

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • Himes, Cherster,
    The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years Buy this book
    Doubleday, 1972.
    Himes rants and roars and explains and shakes his fists, in a soul-burning burst of confession in the first volume of his autobiography. Compelling, provocative and utterly defiant at times.
  • Himes, Cherster,
    My Life of Absurdity: The Later Years Buy this book
    Doubleday, 1976.
    That Himes was pissed off at women and America comes through loud and clear in this second burn-the-bridges volume of his autobiography.
  • Skinner, Robert,
    Two Guns From Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes Buy this book
    Popular Press, 1989.
    Skinner charts the complicated life and work of Himes, discussing how Himes’s “experience as a black man, combined with his unique outlook on sociology, politics, violence, sex, and race relations, resulted not only in an unusual portrait of black America but also opened the way for the creation of the ethnic and female hard-boiled detectives who followed.”
  • Skinner, Robert, and Michel Fabre
    Conversations with Chester Himes Buy this book
    University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
    A compelling selection of intimate and at times provocative interviews with the author.
  • Margolies, Edward, and Michel Fabre,
    The Several Lives of Chester Himes Buy this book
    University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
    Himes scholar Fabre and Edward Margolies teamed up, with the help of Himes’ widow.
  • Sallis, James,
    Chester Himes: A Life Buy this book
    (Walker Books, 2000)
    Picking up from where Skinner’s 1989 biography left off, Sallis digs even deeper, trying to sort out the contradictions and connections between Himes’s writing and his complicated personal life.
  • Jackson, Lawrence P.,
    Chester Himes: A Biography Buy this book Buy the audio Kindle it!
    (W.W. Norton & Co., 2017)
    A piercing and insightful look into the personal struggles and torments of one of America’s most inflential writers. Every new bio seems to dig deeper.
  • “Liberation Struggle: Chester Himes’ One-Man Movement”
    In-depth review by Thomas Chatterton Williams from August 2017 issue of Harper’s, of Lawrence P. Jackson’s 2017 bio, Chester Himes: A Biography (above), focussing not so much on Coffin Ed & Grave Digger as on Himes’ messy and complicated life, and how it affected his fiction.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to John McDonagh for his valuable help on this one.

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