Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Real Cool Killers (Chester Himes, 1959)

While reading the Blond Faith I remembered another master of the urban black hard-boiled crime, the one and only Chester Himes. Alpha-60 blog simply must have few entries of his and what better way to start a series than with this cult novel.

I'm not really into police procedural stuff, at least not in Ed McBain's 87th precinct kind of (too) methodological investigations. But Real Cool Killers is light years away from those formulaic books. True, our main protagonists are cops but there's not much of the procedure here. Unless you count use of brutal force as a standard police procedure. And if you do, I welcome you to Harlem!

Starts extremely violently (and of course incredibly cool) by a guy attacking another customer in a public bar with a knife (!), getting his arm chopped off (!!) by the bartender and soon after being shot in the middle of street in the broad daylight (!!!) while trying to escape another crazed customer. In the shooting involved a juvenile delinquent also gets killed (!!!!) and an innocent passerby is wounded by a stray bullet (!!!!!). Plus Grave Digger and Coffin Joe, on their way to the crime scene, fire a  few bullets to a car of local mobster. Just to remind us how tough they are and that we are reading Chester fucking Himes!

Pace doesn't slow at all, this stuff just grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. In fact the whole book takes place in a mere 6 hours and in this period we follow two independent investigations (one by the police and one by Grave Digger) entwined by the happenings and tensions between the members of Real Cool Moslems gang. One of them also happens to be a Coffin Ed's daughter so we can expect some bloody retribution at the end. Needles really to say that we shall get one but there will also be a double (and even triple) twist!

True masterpiece and even 50+ years after its publication it still remains unique. Flawless stuff, everything simply works to a perfection. Won't start again about superb plotting and breathtaking pace - I also loved the dark style, terrific dialogues and use of a slang (too bad though that 'fuck' is replaced by 'rap'), realistic and not cartoonish characterization of all protagonists and especially depiction of Harlem slums as a savage racially segregated urban jungle. Hell, if nothing else, we can learn here what a zip gun is and even how to assemble one!

Mandatory re-reading. Give it a try while listening to Unsane, it will hit you even harder!



Grave Digger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson

Harlem, NYC. Where 

"The broken concrete paving was strewn with broken glass bottles, rags and diverse objects thrown from the back windows: a rusty bed spring, a cotton mattress with a big hole burnt in the middle, several worn-out automobile tires, the half-dried carcass of a black cat with its left foot missing and its eyes eaten out by rats.

And even better:

"Well, it's like this, Commissioner," Grave Digger said. "Every day in Harlem, two or three times a day, the colored people see some colored man being chased by another colored man with a knife or an axe or a cub. Or else being chased by a white cop with a gun, or by white man with his fists. But it's only once in a blue moon they get to see a white man being chased by one of them. That was an event. A chance to see some white blood spilled for a change, and spilled by a black man, at that. That was greater than Emancipation Day. As they say up in Harlem, that was the greatest. That's what Ed and I are always up against when we try to keep Harlem safe for white people."

Body count
5 (not counting the old granny)

Sugartit, Sissie

 Nope, no time for anybody to get knocked out in this one.

A bit of artistic freedom here since our gang is actually called "Real Cool Moslems". But we'll forgive Mr. Hines for sneaking "cool" into the title.

Great one. It pictures two guys having a fight with a bottle and a gun with some dark Harlem (I assume) blocks in the background. Expressionless and ruthless face of a guy gives a picture dark and sinister tone which reflects perfectly tone of the novel. I won't hesitate one second in case I find a poster with this cover! It would look great on my wall...

Cool lines:  
"Don't play with me," Grave Digger said with a sudden show of anger. "This ain't the movies, this is real. A white man has been killed in Harlem and Harlem is my beat. I'll take you down to the station and turn a dozen white cops loose on you and they'll work you over until the black comes off."  

"Don't show me your teeth," Grave Digger snarled. "I'm no dentist. I don't fix teeth. I'm a cop. I'll knock your teeth out." [The Coolest!]

During the hostage negotiation situation] 
"Don't be a mad dog like Vincent Coll. Be a man like Dillinger was." [The Coolest!]

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