A Rage in Harlam by Chester Himes

I had to read this for my detective novel class, but this isn’t actually a detective novel at all. It’s a thriller, because it’s concerned with figuring out what’s going to happen, rather than figuring out what has happened (which is the definition of a detective story – the more you know!). The plot reminded me of one of those action movies where an Unassuming Ordinary Guy gets sucked into this crazy underworld of violence and craziness and he has to try to stay afloat and not get arrested or killed. (the first movie example to come to my mind was, sadly, Wanted.)

The Unassuming Ordinary Guy here is Jackson, who gets roped into a counterfeiting scam, and the next thing he knows he’s running from the cops while trying to get his money and his girl back, while also figuring out just what the hell is going on. Also he has a twin brother who dresses up as a nun and sells tickets to heaven, which is horrible and awesome.

The book is fast-paced and action-packed and racist and hella, hella violent. Like, graphic and gross. People get stabbed, shot, and beaten; they also get in car accidents and have acid thrown in their faces. Everybody is a crook and a con man, and the one female character is crazy and possibly evil and I can’t decide if I liked her or not. Additionally, Himes shares that hard-boiled detective writer gift for absolutely fantastic description. Is this a requirement of American thriller writers? First Hammett, then Chandler, now Himes – all these guys may be violent and racist and misogynist, but my God can they write a good description. I mean, look at this:

“The customers were the hepped-cats who lived by their wits – smooth Harlem hustlers with shiny, straightened hair, dressed in lurid elegance, along with their tightly-draped queens, chorus girls and models – which meant anything – sparkling with iridescent glass jewelry, rolling dark mascaraed eyes, flashing crimson fingernails, smiling with pearl white-teeth encircled by purple-red lips, exhibiting the hot excitement that money could buy.”

and this:

“It was a dark, deserted , dismal section of Manhattan, eerie, shunned and unpatrolled at night, where a man could get his throat cut in perfect isolation with no one to hear his cries and no one brave enough to answer them if he did.”

Verdict: three out of five stars

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