Often compared to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes (1909-1984) ranks as the most influential author of African American detective fiction. Raised in a middle-class household in Jefferson City, Missouri, Himes dropped out of the premedical track at Ohio State University, attracted by the nightlife and lowlife of Columbus. Convicted of armed robbery in 1928, he served eight years in jail, passing the time by honing his narrative voice in “Crazy in the Stir” (1934), “To What Red Hell” (1934), and other short stories of prison life. A string of autobiographical novels followed his parole, including If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), a tale of 1940s Los Angeles in the naturalist style of Richard Wright, and Lonely Crusade (1947), an exposé of the racial politics of the Communist Party. In 1953, Himes joined Wright as an expatriate in France, where his work had already been translated. Encouraged to contribute to La Série Noire, a high-paying publisher of hard-boiled detective fiction, Himes quickly produced For Love of Imabelle (1957), a novel awarded the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière at a televised Paris cocktail party. Afterward came seven other novels starring Himes’s most original creations, the Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, among them Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965) and The Heat’s On (1966), each made into a studio film. In the words of Ishmael Reed, the Coffin Ed and Grave Digger series taught African American writers “the essential difference between a black detective and Sherlock Homes.” The FBI kept a file on Himes from 1944 to 1964, beginning with a reading of his prison stories and later checking on his whereabouts in France. Himes turned the tables on both FBI “file-style” and Richard Wright’s overbearing early influence in his novel A Case of Rape, written in 1956.
FBI documents studying Chester Himes.
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