Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book 18 – The Crazy Kill

By Chester Himes

Six books for the month of May!

This may not be the best intro to the work of Chester Himes as The Crazy Kill is already the third book in a series and generally not considered his best work. I had picked up this Vintage Press 1989 reprint (doesn't boast the greatest cover, I know) for a couple bucks at our fave thrift shop, and read it when I needed a break from Something Borrowed (that book will haunt me for the rest of my days) to immerse myself in something tough from the classic crime genre . So for any fans of Himes please take this review with a grain of salt.

Though I was curious to know more about the back story of Detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed, in The Crazy Kill they merely function as secondary figures who lurk in the background quietly observing the other characters doing their dance as the story unfolds. This worked out well for me since the plot of TCK stands on its own without any need to read the first two books.

The big luxurious sitting room of the Seventh Avenue apartment was jam-packed with friends and relatives of Big Joe Pullen, mourning his passing.

Himes follows literary conventions by establishing the setting, context and cast of characters, but in such a colloquial, engaging style that you are immediately drawn in. Though the story was interesting enough, I was not particularly impressed by it, as it wasn’t terribly exciting as a thriller, nor was it terribly perplexing as a detective-mystery, yet there was a fair bit of criminality and some police procedural. The actual murder at the beginning wasn't really all that crazy - until I got to the end, that is - where I finally realized this was what the title was probably based on. So yeah, that was kind of crazy!

But I did take pleasure in the way Himes depicts the atmosphere of late 50’s Harlem. There's plenty of scenery where street kids touch the gleaming hot fishtails of “Four Ace” Johnny Perry’s Cadillac as it pulls up to a curb or how Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed cruise down Seventh Avenue in their battered black sedan looking for stool pigeons.

Himes really has a way with words. The experience of being immersed in that gritty, noirish world is enough to compensate for a lack of thrilling action or interesting plot construction. It's the little details I tend to savour, such as a peak at a dinner menu at Fat’s Down Home Restaurant:

Today’s Special – Alligator tail & rice
Baked Ham – sweet potatoes & succotash
Chitterlings & collard greens & okra
Chicken and drop dumplings – with rice or sweet potatoes
Barbecued ribs
Pig’s feet á la mode
Neck bones and lye hominy

(Choice of biscuits or corn bread)

(Note that the next book I read tried to do a similar thing with Chinese food, but it didn't quite work for me. For some reason, this works for Himes, but not for others)

Or a brief description of the physical attributes of a character can be loaded with backstory and meaning:

Stripped to her black nylon brassiere, black sheer nylon panties and high-heeled red shoes, Doll Baby was practicing her chorus routine in the center of the floor. She had her back to the window and was watching her reflection in the dressing-table mirror. A tray of dirty dishes containing leftovers from the chili bean and stewed chitterling dinners they’d ordered from the bar restaurant rested on the table top, cutting her reflection in half just below the panties, as though she might have been served without legs along with the other delicacies. The outline of three heavy embossed scars running across her buttocks were visible beneath the sheer black panties.

I have a feeling Himes previous books in the series may be better in terms of plot and characterization of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed, and I am interested in reading A Rage in Harlem one day, though I’m not in any great rush.

Here is link to a pithy review which I thought had some interesting observations.

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