A Rage In Harlem – Chester Himes

a-rage-in-harlem

“Just why did you come here, Brother Jackson? Why did you come to me?”

“I just wanted to kneel here beside you, Reverend Gaines, and give myself up to the Lord.”

“What!” Reverend Gaines stared as though Jackson had uttered blasphemy. “Give yourself up to the Lord?  Jesus Christ, man, what do you take the Lord for?  You have to go and give yourself up to the police.  The Lord won’t get you out of that kind of mess.”

***

Source: Bought Copy

Publisher: Penguin Classics

Date of Publication: 1957 as The Five Cornered Square

 

Jackson is a simple man, a “square” as it were, a black man just trying to get ahead in 50’s Harlem, trying to do right by his lady Imabelle and shower her with the finer things in life.  So when Imabelle introduces him to Hank and Jodie, a couple of cool cats who have devised a way to turn Jackson’s life saving of fifteen hundred bucks into “Fifteen Grand!”, even a God fearing man like Jackson succumbs to temptation.  Alas, for Jackson, stupidity rather than pride comes before a fall, and when the fall comes, it’s to the tune of fifteen hundred bucks.  Jackson, facing financial ruin, compounds the interest by stealing from his employer and investing his ill gotten gains in a game of craps, a game at which he is…well…crap.

Now on the run from an ersatz U. S. Marshall and desperate to repay his former employer, Jackson enlists the help of the only person who might thread this needle of misfortune, namely, the good sister Gabriel, a hustler who works the streets by day in the guise of a Sister of Mercy, and spends the nights as a dope fiend. She’s otherwise known as Jackson’s ne’er do well brother Goldy.  What Jackson lacks in street smarts, Goldy makes up for in spades, and while Jackson just wants back his sweet Imabelle, Goldy is more interested in the trunk of gold she’s been known to travel with. However, to retrieve Imabelle (and the gold), Goldy and Jackson have to outsmart Hank and Jody’s crew, all the while keeping the law off their trail. Before they’re done the streets of Harlem will run red with blood, but it’s an even bet as to whose.

***

The confidence game is a hallmark of great crime fiction, especially when it ends badly. Don’t believe me? Just think of Roy Dillon and his mother Lilly at the end of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. Combine a con game with a pinch of noir and a dash of the hardboiled, top it with a generous dollop of the absurd, and you’ll find yourself reading A Rage in Harlem, the perfect introduction to the dark noir of Chester Himes. Described in the introduction of my copy as a “comedy caper”, a more apt description would be, “absurd noir”, for there are times when Hime’s black humour sorely tests the reader’s suspension of disbelief. A dedicated reader, managing to push through the more ridiculous aspects of the novel will find their patience well spent, for what it lacks in realism, this tale of greed, deception, and murder makes up for in sheer murderous fun.

A Rage in Harlem also provides the reader their introduction those iconic Harlem detectives, “Coffin” Ed Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones, a pair of black detectives who can go where their white counterparts dare not. Carrying “specially made long-barreled nickel-plated .38 calibre revolvers”, and being very free in their use, these two detectives have convinced the people of Harlem that they would shoot a man dead for not standing straight in line.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren’t crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they did respect big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said that in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger’s would bury it.

Skirting the edges of the law they’re sworn to keep, these two detectives believe in their own brand of street justice while their superiors believe in looking the other way as long as they bring results.  Those results generally bring a lot of business to the local undertaker. That’s not to say they’re corrupt, but the delineation between right and wrong for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed depends on their own moral compass rather than any set of formal rules. Having found an audience for their peculiar brand of justice, Himes’ A Rage in Harlem became the first of what became known as the Harlem Detective series.

As for our cast of characters, Jackson is the epitome of the hapless protagonist, unwilling to recognize Imabelle’s true nature and innocent to a fault.  His brother Goldy is another creature altogether, street smart and cunning, saddled with an addiction to both drugs and the greed of easy money, and yet altogether more sympathetic than his simple brother, mostly because he’s aware of who and what he is, and of course, what motivates Imabelle.  Jackson may not know it, but he’s run afoul of the femme fatale, although Imabelle would be hard pressed to admit it, perhaps even to herself. What can be said for certain is that she’s plenty capable of handling herself and the men around her, even those that recognize her for what she is, at least until she meets Grave Digger Jones.

Hank and Jody are the least interesting of this cast of characters, a couple of soulless killers with little depth of character, merely a means to an end, so despicable as to make the reader root for the dimwitted Jackson and his shady sidekick Goldy, and to humanize Grave Digger and Coffin Ed when they step outside the lines of what we generally consider acceptable behaviour in those charged with protecting society from its baser instincts.  They’re men in need of murdering, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are up to the task.

Within the pages of A Rage in Harlem, Himes has combined all the elements of a classic crime novel, creating a Harlem I’m not entirely sure ever existed, and populating it with classic tropes of the genre.  We’ve got the Mcguffin, evidenced in Imabelle’s trunk of gold, the misplaced love of a good man, and the object of that love, the femme fatale, personified in Imabelle herself. Add to that a couple of hard-boiled detectives working just this side of the law, and you end up with a magnificent addition to the genre.

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The Ethical Assassin–David Liss

the Ethical AssassinI probably wouldn’t have said it without the beer, but I’d had the beer. 

“Okay, fine. Meat is murder.  But you know what else is murder?  Wait, let me think.  Oh, yeah.  I remember now: Murder.  Murder is murder.  That’s right.  Killing a couple of people who are minding their own business.  Breaking into their home and shooting them in the head.  That’s murder too, I think.  The Smiths have an album about that?”

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Publication Date: March, 2006

Lemuel Altick is just a kid, selling encyclopedias door to door in the trailer park township of Meadowbrook Grove, a charming accumulation of worn down trailers permeated with the musk of the local pig farm waste lagoon.  He’s good at it, a natural seller, and the profit he makes from this travelling summer job (Champion Encyclopedias!) should just about cover tuition for college in the fall.  So, when he manages to charm his way into one last trailer before knocking off for the day, he’s ecstatic.  Between the disinterested palooka by unlikely name of “Bastard” and his gullible “wife” Karen, it’s an easy score for a talented salesman like Lem.  And so it goes—the pitch is made—the cheque is written, and Lem is on his way to a $1200 commission. Everything’s clockwork, right up until the moment a spikey haired blonde assassin in black jeans and a button down shirt bursts in on them and shoots his almost clients in the head.  Lem’s commission, and possibly his life, are now forfeit.

Luckily for him, this particular assassin has a peculiar code of ethics, not so much the “no women, no children” of Leon Montana (The Professional), but rather one in which he will not kill those he considers innocent.  However, his definition of “innocent” is the peculiar part.  So, Lem is offered a deal.  His silence, coupled with his fingerprints on the murder weapon—just in case—and things will be cool.  Unknown to either Lem or the assassin, things are most definitely not “cool”, as Bastard and Karen are much more than the uneducated hicks they seemed pre-mortem.  Add a corrupt cop, a wannabe pedophile, a low-level mobster, a meth operation, and most importantly, $40 000 in missing cash to the mix and you have the bizarre ride that is The Ethical Assassin.

I first saw a copy of The Ethical Assassin in a store window while walking down Queen St. West in Toronto, way back in 2006.  What caught my attention were the title and the question that popped to mind.  Is it possible to be ethical when one’s chosen profession is the killing of others?  After all, murder is not exactly what the masses would call an “ethical” profession.  Sure, there are reasons to kill: self-defense, the “politics by other means” known as war, maybe even (if you’re pro-death sentence) execution as punishment for one’s crimes. Melford Kean, the titular “Ethical Assassin” kills not for money, or revenge, but due to a deep rooted—and decidedly odd—sense of morality.

Kean is not so much an ethical assassin as he is an ideological one.  Charming on the surface, yet more empathetic to the animal kingdom than his fellow Homo sapiens, Melford has an uncanny ability to argue his position, making an intriguing portrait of a zealot.   Mired in the idea of moral relativism, what seems/is amoral to Lem, Melford accepts as the price to be paid for his activism by other means.  Without giving out too much detail as to why Melford does what he does, let’s just say it’s not about the money or the drugs but more about his profound sense of egalitarianism of species.

It becomes obvious during the course of the novel that Lem, while terrified of Melford’s predilection towards extreme violence, is also somewhat taken in by his charming nature, and while not exactly becoming friends, they share a relationship that borders on it.  And that’s the thing about Melford—he’s a zealot, and a persuasive one.  Lem is smart enough not to be taken in by his ideology, but their time together and some of his subsequent choices show that he’s definitely influenced by Melford’s arguments, even if only on a subconscious level.

As for Lem, he’s a charming portrait of a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  An earnest and upstanding kid, simply trying to make the best of the bad deal he’s been dealt in life, he spends the novel trying to extricate himself from a situation not of his making while not getting killed in the  process.  There’s some irony in the fact that he doesn’t really have to worry about Melford—ethically Lem is in the clear—but his perceived association to the crime by those seeking revenge, and the $40K in drug money.  His problems are also compounded by Melford’s desire to look out for him, all the while proselytizing about his system of ethics while trying to sort out the situation in a way that keeps Lem from harm.

While Lem and Melford are the focus of David Liss’ novel, the villains of the story are interesting in their own right.  The relationship between B.B. and Desiré, meth kingpin/pedophile wannabe and his sexy former addict/consigliere, a truly vile corrupt cop by the name of Joe Doe and a former mafia heavy by the unlikely name of Kenny Rogers (hence the nickname “the gambler) demonstrates an odd alliance of interesting characters.  B.B. seems an unlikely kingpin, more concerned with “advancing” the moral character of young men, while Desiré finds herself questioning her allegiance to a man who may have saved her from the gutter but is on a downward spiral into behavior she can’t countenance.  Doe is a delusional character who thinks he’s the smartest man in the room while continually proving he’s not, and the Gambler is actually somewhat sympathetic.  He’s got Lou Gehrig’s disease, and while his chosen profession is suspect, it’s the only way a former mob heavy can pay his mounting medical costs.  Brought together in opposition to the partnership that is Lem and Melford, they all discover that the ethical assassin is not someone to be trifled with.

There are times when The Ethical Assassin feels like social activism parading as fiction, yet it’s so well written that the author can be forgiven for injecting his particular world view.  David Liss has been interviewed on several occasions regarding the animal rights message of the novel and is very adamant that he’s not suggesting direct action, claiming that the character of Melford is written so outrageously as to make this obvious.  However, there are times in the novel where his claim falls short and it devolves into a lecture on the evils of both the commercial farming of animals and the demerits of choosing to be a carnivore.  I’ll take his word on that (re: direct action) but reserve the right to question his sincerity as to whether or not he’s lecturing the reader.  It’s a narrow path to follow, creating such a charming and persuasive character while still showing the flaws of their argument.  It’s also hard to review without delving into the controversial subject.

Having said that, The Ethical Assassin is a charming novel, well written and entertaining, and deserving its place in the pantheon of unusual crime fiction. 

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