The Crazy Kill
Chester B. Himes
Vintage Press, reprint 1989 (orig. 1959)
First Line: It was four o’clock, Wednesday morning, July 14th, in Harlem U.S.A. Seventh Avenue was as dark and lonely as haunted graves.
Well last week’s snow left me plenty of time to get ahead on my reading but the general malaise and lethargy engendered by a snowy couple of days certainly put a damper on my writing. The next couple of reviews should mark the tail end of my little project and each (barring this review, and the upcoming Mystical Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death review) should cover a different decade (a late minute addition to the experience). Now, however we’re looking at another crime thriller by the oft-overlooked (though less so in recent years) Chester Himes. I first experienced Himes’ fiction in college while reading A Rage in Harlem (originally titled For Love of Imabelle) and found his work fascinating though, for my tastes at least, less compulsively readable then other authors of the same genre thanks in part to Himes’ tendency towards the surreal and outright absurd.
The Crazy Kill is, I believe, the fourth novel in Himes’ Harlem Detective series featuring the black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. While it seems the common mode is to accept that series as being identified by Coffin Ed and Grave Digger it should be noted that while the two appear in this novel they are less prominent in the narrative then one might expect. Unlike most hardboiled detective stories, which feature a first person or third-person limited perspective, The Crazy Kill operates more on a third-person objective narrative with Grave Digger and Coffin Ed being only two of the multitude of characters the story follows. Which, in the end, is why I see this book as more of a crime thriller then a detective novel. There is very little detecting that goes on and Himes’ is more focused on the violence, corruptions, and tensions of is setting (and between his characters) then he is on the mystery itself.
Regardless Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are interesting studies in contradiction. They are agents of the law but are more concerned with tracking down violent crime rather then any other sort of offense. They aren’t afraid to use a little breaking and entering to find out some information but they do so with knowledge that anything they find might well get them in trouble rather then help them with the case. In fact there they even have a conversation about it while breaking into an apparent. They punish violence with a dogged sense of justice yet aren’t afraid to use violence themselves to compel people towards assisting them in their goals. They walk a very grey moral path and it is difficult to get a handle on their character in just one book and when they don’t get a lot of time in the limelight.
Himes’ tends to blend his violence with humor. This is evident right from the opening scene where a man watching a burglary from a window leans too far out only to overbalance and fall, landing on a pallet of bread. Indeed, that same character, a Reverend is the focus for much of the novel’s humor though it frequently takes on a grim tone. Again the novel is outright funny but tends towards take humorous elements in order to lighten some situations, such as the interrogation of a witness being preceded by an attack by a chicken, but otherwise remains of secondary consideration to the novel’s somewhat labyrinthine plot.
While it has been a while my vague recollections of A Rage In Harlem seem to outweigh my end opinion of The Crazy Kill. The plot never really gelled for me and the whole thing felt a bit slapdash with literally no hints towards the big reveal at the novel’s end. I’d be more willing to recommend A Rage In Harlem over The Crazy Kill as a better indication of Himes’ abilities. It wasn’t a bad read by any means and if you’re a fan of Himes and the history of crime fiction then this is certainly well worth a look. In the end a fascinating read by an interesting author, but certainly not his best.