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by Bamber Gascoigne

Chester Himes (1909-1984)


African-American author who was nearly fifty like Raymond Chandler when he started to write detective novels. Chester Himes, a predecessor to such writers as Ishmael Reed and Walter Mosley, created a violent and cynical picture of the black experience in America. Most of his books were set in Harlem, New York City. After 1953 Himes lived in Europe.

"I would sit in my room and become hysterical thinking about the wild, incredible story I was writing. But it was only for the French, I thought, and they would believe anything about Americas, black or white, if it was bad enough. And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference." (from My Life of Absurdity, 1976)

Chester Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, into a middle-class academic black family. According to Himes, his father Joseph Sandy Himes was "born and raised in the tradition of the Southern Uncle Tom . . .  [an] inherited slave mentality, which accepts the premise that white people know best". ('Chester Himes' by Stephen Soitos, in A Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley, 2020, p. 480) Joseph became professor of metal trades and taught industrial skills at southern black colleges. The family later moved to Cleveland. Himes's mother, who had worked as a teacher, "looked white and felt that she should have been white." ('Chester Himes. Writer' by Ishmael Reed, in Black World, March 1972, p. 26) The marriage was unhappy and gradually disintegrated.

After attending a high school in Cleveland, Himes entered in 1926 Ohio State University with the intention of studying medicine. However, he was expelled for taking fellow students to one of the gambling houses he frequented. Dropping out of society he then worked as an errand boy for the pimps and hustlers. His first wife, Jean Johnson, Himes met at a Cleveland sneak thief's opium party. After numerous encounters with the law, Himes was imprisoned in Ohio State Penitentiary (1928-36) for armed robbery of an elderly Cleveland Heights couple. The sentence was 25 years – Himes was just 19. "When I could see the end of my time inside I bought myself a typewriter and taught myself to touch typing. I'd been reading stories by Dashiell Hammett in Black Mask and I thought I could do them just as well. When my stories finally appeared, the other convicts thought exactly the same thing. There was nothing to it. All you had to do was tell it like it is." (Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly, 1985, p. 452) Learning the art of creative writing, Himes produced stories for black newspapers, and in 1934 Esquire magazine published one of his pieces, 'To What Red Hell,' an account of the devasting fire in the Penitentiary in 1930. He also sold stories to Coronet.

After his release Himes married Jean Lucinda Johnson in 1937. When they had met, Jean had been seventeen; she was twenty-eight years old at the time of the marriage. During Himes's long incarceration, she remained devoted to him. For a period, Himes worked in manual labour, digging ditches and dredging sewers, and was a research assistant at the Cleveland Public Library, until he was hired by the WPA's Federal Writers' Project (1938-41). He contributed briefly to Cleveland Daily News, and moved to California where he continued writing while working in various shipyards in Loas Angeles and San Francisco  during WW II. Even with the sponsorship of Pulitzer Prize-winner Louis Bromfield, Himes was unable to find a publisher for his novel Black Sheep. He was also rejected from Hollywood. Soon after securing a contract with Warner Brothers – Himes wrote the synopsis for The Magic Bow, about the Italian violinist Niccoló  Paganini – Jack Warner fired him.

In 1945, Himes debuted with If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), a story of racism in the defense industry. "We're a wonderful, goddamned race, I thought. Simpleminded, generous, sympathetic sons of bitches. We're sorry for everybody but ourselves, the worse the white folks treat us the more we love 'em." (from If He Hollers Let Him Go). Many critics, in spite of the awkward prose, have considered this novel as one of the author's best books. "The hero is race-mad," said David Littlejohn, "almost to the point of hysteria, packed with dry high explosive, waiting for the match." ('Himes, Chester (Bomar),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 643)

It was followed by Lonely Crusade (1947) and The Third Generation (1954), the last novel Himes wrote in America – both dealing with the impact of racial oppression. Cast the First Stone (1953), about prison life, drew on Himes's own experiences, but all the central characters are white. Himes's publisher cut 250 pages from the original script of 650 pages.

In the late 1940's, Himes was a protege of Richard Wright, who had settled in Paris. Their backgrounds were completely different – Himes came from middleclass and had attended university; Wright  was the son of sharecroppers and attended school sporadically, but during the Depression they had shared a common experience.

Tired of racism and leaving his wife, who had been the breadwinner in the family, Himes moved to France in 1953 and later to the south of Spain. Himes tells in his book of memoir, The Quality of Hurt (1972), that one reason for his coming to Europe was that he came very close to killing the white woman, Vandi Haygood, with whom he had lived. "I had always believed that to defend my life of my honor I would kill a white man without a second thought. But when I discovered that this applied to white women too, I was profoundly shaken."

In Paris Himes lived with his German girlfriend at Mme. Rachou's flophouse on Rue Git-le-Coeur – the place also attracted a number of painters, musicians and writers, among them Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. The Primitive (1955) was an autobiographical work and related a love affair of a black failed author and a white woman executive. In 1957 Himes was invited by Marcel Duhamel, the editor of Gallimard's 'La Serie Noire,' and the French translator of If He Hollers Let Him Go, to write a detective novels for the French. Himes had read Dashiell Hammett and set out to do something similar. These novels became an instant success and established his reputation as one of the most original talents of hard boiled detective fiction.

Himes was taken more seriously in France and Germany than in the US, where his books were marketed as commercial "sex and violence" stories. Moveover, he was misleadingly compared with Mickey Spillane. Both are masters of tough style, but Spillane's world of sex, violence, and doom, has little to do with Himes's absurdism and mordant humour.

Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, Himes's famous characters, made their first appearance in For Love of Imabelle (1957). Coffin Ed's face is disfigured by thrown acid in the first of the novels, Grave Digger has an oversized frame; they live next door to each other in Queens. Johnson has a short temper Their method of police work is straightforwardly violent: they shoot people and extract confessions through intimidation. In the series of eight novels Himes created an imaginary cityscape of Harlem, which served as carnivalistic background for commentaries on race and class in both black and white worlds. He used often a simultaneous time frame, in which parallel stories take place at the same moment. The fractured plots pitched white against black and black against black in an absurd comedy of racism and poverty.

"And I thought I was writing realism," Himes confessed in his autobiography My Life of Absurdity (1976). "It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference." In Cotton Comes to Harlem (1964) thieves steal from thieves as everyone runs after a bale of cotton, a hiding place for a large sum of money. Humoristic dialogue, based on vernacular, becomes bitter in the last novels – society is on the brink of collapse. In Plan B. (1983) the detectives are no longer able to keep peace in Harlem when black revolution catapults the community into total upheaval. Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones appeared on screen. Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), directed by Ossie Davis, and starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St Jacques, and Calvin Lockhart, was described  by Vincent Canby as "a conventional white movie that employs some terrible white stereotypes of black life. . . . the audience, as far as I could tell, was simply disappointed that crime did not pay." ('Ossie Davis's 'Cotton Comes to Harlem' by Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 11, 1970) In A Rage in Harlem (1991), starring Gregory Hines, Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker, Cincinnati's urban tenement area doubled for Harlem.

Himes was awarded in 1958 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and Columbus Foundation award in 1982. His was married twice, the second time with Lesley Packard, a white librarian. During much of the 1970s Himes was ill, living in Spain. On his travels Himes usually took with him a Siamese cat, named Griot. After Griot died, Himes had a cat named Devos. His major work in the 1970s was a two-volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years and My Life as Absurdity. Himes died in Moravia, Spain, on November 12, 1984. "The only time I was happy," he once said, "was while writing these strange, violent, unreal stories." ('Chester Himes,' in 100 Most Popular African American Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies by Bernard A. Drew, 2007, p. 149)

Cast the Fist Stone was reissued in 1998 under the title Yesterday Will Make You Cry, in the form Himes first wrote the novel. The protagonist is a white young man, Jimmy Monroe, who hates his family, society, himself, and the repressive penal system "with orders to whip a convict's head as long as his head would last."

For further reading: 'Himes, Chester (Bomar),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Chester Himes by James Lundqvist (1976); Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal by Stephen F. Milliken (1976); 'Himes, Chester (Bomar)' by Jens Peter Becker, in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes by Robert E. Skinner (1989); The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman by Peter Freese (1992); Conversations with Chester Himes, edited by Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner (1995); The Several Lives of Chester Himes by Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre (1997); Chester Himes A Life by James Sallis (2001); 'Himes, Chester,' by Kate Tuttle, in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, 2nd ed., Volume 3, edited by Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates (2005); The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation by Brian Dolinar (2012); Chester B. Himes: a Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson (2017); 'Chester Himes' by Stephen Soitos, in A Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley (2020) - See also police procedural fiction: Lawrence Treat - Other American writers living in Paris in the 1950s: Richard Wright, James Baldwin - Other major African-American mystery writers: Donald Goines, Walter Mosley, John B. West

Selected writings:

  • Yesteday Will Make You Cry, 1937 (finished in 1937, shortened version Cast the First Stone published in 1952, original novel published in 1998)
  • If He Hollers Let Him, 1945
    - film 1968, prod. Cinerama Productions Corp., dir. Charles Martin, Dana Wynter, Raymond St. Jacques, Kevin McCarthy, Barbara McNair
  • Lonely Crusade, 1947
  • Cast the First Stone, 1953
  • The Third Generation, 1954
  • The Primitive, 1955
  • For Love of Imabelle, 1957 (in France La Reine des pommes; as A Rage in Harlem, 1965)
  • The Crazy Kill, 1959
  • The Real Cool Killers, 1959
  • All Shot Up, 1960
  • The Big Gold Dream, 1960
  • Pinktoes, 1961
    - Rusovarpaat (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1972)
  • Un affaire de viol: roman, 1963 (translated by André Mathieu, afterword by Christiane Rochefort)
  • A Rage in Harlem, 1965 
    - Ei armoa Harlemissa (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1971)
    - film 1991, prod. Miramax Films, Palace Pictures, dir. by Bill Duke, starring Gregory Hines, Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker, Robin Givens
  • Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965
    - Kuolema kulkee Harlemissa (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1971)
    - film 1970, prod. Formosa Productions, dir. by Ossie Davi, starring Godfrey Cambridge (as Gravedigger Jones), Raymond St. Jacques (as Coffin Ed Johnson), Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace  
  • Run Man, Run, 1966
  • The Heat's On, 1966 (as Come Back Charleston Blue, 1970)
    - Hellettä Harlemissa (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1976)
    - film: Come Back, Chesterton Blue, 1972, prod. Formosa Productions, dir. by Mark Warren, starring Godfrey Cambridge (as Gravedigger Jones), Raymond St. Jacques (Coffin Ed Johnson), Peter De Anda, Percy Rodrigues
  • Blind Man with a Pistol, 1969 (as Hot Day, Hot Night, 1970)
    - Hetki vain, olet vainaa (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1973)
  • The Autobiography of Chester Himes, 1972-76 (2 vols.)
  • Black on Black: Baby Sister and Selected Writings, 1973
  • My Life of Absurdity: The Later Years: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, 1976
  • A Case of Rape, 1980
  • Le manteau de rêve, 1982
  • Plan B: A Novel., 1983
  • The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, 1990 (foreword by Calvin Hernton)
  • Yesterday Will Make You Cry, 1998 (Cast the First Stone reissued)
  • Dear Chester, Dear John: Letters between Chester Himes and John A. Williams, 2008 (compiled and edited by John A. and Lori Williams, with a foreword by Gilbert H. Muller)

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