COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1965) ****
by Chester Himes
First published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965
This edition: published by Penguin Books, 2011, 224pp.
Blurb: A preacher called Deke O’Malley’s been selling false hope: the promise of a glorious new life in Africa for just $1,000 a family. But when thieves with machine guns steal the proceeds – and send one man’s brain matter flying – the con is up. Now Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed mean to bring the good people of Harlem back their $87,000, however many corpses they have to climb over to get it.
This is the sixth book in Chester Himes’ series about Harlem detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. It is perhaps the best known of his novels in that it was adapted for the big screen in 1970 and was one of the major instigators of the Blaxploitation genre of filmmaking that dominated cinemas through the mid-1970s. The novel is a quirky, sometimes absurd, but always entertaining story of the search for stolen loot right through to its ironic twist ending. Himes wonderfully captures the cornucopia of characters and misfits that inhabit the streets of Harlem, all looking to improve their lot in life. The book comments on the way society will feed off and steal from itself in order to survive – from the charlatan preacher Deke O’Malley to the sexy Iris. Himes outlines the Harlem criminals’ trait in feeding, like vultures, off of the vulnerable in their own society, embodied by the widowed Mabel who is taken in by O’Malley’s preachings and meets a tragic demise herself. The McGuffin is a bale of cotton in which is hidden $87,000 taken by O’Malley from 87 families looking to return to their roots via his “Back to Africa” initiative, which is really a scam. When the money is lost during the getaway the search begins and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed use all their street-smart methods to get it back. The book is representative of the Harlem of 1965 and brings alive the poverty (represented by the homeless Uncle Bud) and survival instincts of its inhabitants. The writing is sometimes idiosyncratic but is of a style Himes perfected over his series of novels about life in Harlem and is perfectly suited to the characters and stories he portrays.