by | Mar 10, 2022 | Mystery Minute | 5 comments

By ZJ Czupor

Chester Himes

If you stopped to chat with this famous author on the street, you might decide he had few redeeming qualities and keep walking. And you might, on second thought, think that with his sketchy past, he was a lost cause. Just look at his early record:

  • As a student at Ohio State University, he spent more time with prostitutes and pimps than he did in class. He took some students to a whorehouse where a fight broke out and after word got back to the dean, he was expelled.
  • He was arrested for using a fake ID and for cashing a bad check.
  • Out on bail, he stole a car, drove to a wealthy neighborhood, and robbed a couple at gunpoint. He stole four rings worth $5,000.
  • The next day, he was caught at a pawnshop, found guilty, and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
  • In the blink of an eye, at the age of nineteen, he went from being a college student to a prisoner in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

While in his cell, he read voraciously and began writing short stories on a typewriter he bought from his gambling winnings. A few of his cellmates, who also had literary aspirations, encouraged him to write, and he did so while sitting on a convict’s bunk, with a folding table, next to a urinal. One of his cellmates, Prince Rico, whom he said had a Mona Lisa smile, also encouraged his writing, and became his love interest. In later years, he confessed that he wrote to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates and to avoid violence. He never considered himself to be homosexual and was honest with his later female partners about what happened in prison.

More importantly, his writing in prison changed his life.

In 1930, a massive prison fire killed 332 of his inmates. The story he wrote about the event, “To What Red Hell,” appeared in the Cleveland News. At the time of the fire, 4,000 men were packed into the facility designed to hold 1,500. In his short story about the fire, Blackie, the white protagonist, observes that “all the dead, white and black, have the same smoke-blackened flesh.”

Four years later, two of his short stories appeared in Esquire magazine alongside stories by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). He sold those stories for $50 apiece. He concealed his race from editors and wrote only white characters to increase his chances of getting published, and for a pen name he used his prison number 59623.

Thanks to his literary accomplishment, and good behavior, he earned an early release in 1935 having served eight years of his twenty-year sentence.

The author, with the bad record who turned his life around, is Chester B. Himes, an African American writer, whose inner rage against racism would remain with him throughout his life. He laced his novels with communism, the Cold War, liberalism, integration, social misery, race mixing, Black poverty, and the Black bourgeoisie.

Chester Bomar Himes (1909-1984) was born in Jefferson City, Missouri into a middle-class family of educators. His father taught industrial education at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi and at the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff. His mother taught piano and music and formerly served on the faculty of Georgia State College, where she taught English composition and music. Her composition for “The Alcorn Ode,” is still the official song of Alcorn State University.

Because his mother was light skinned and often mistaken as white, she felt the effects of bigotry from both sides. She once told a young Chester, “You mustn’t think of yourself as colored…You both have white blood—fine white blood—in your veins.” But the racism he experienced turned him into an angry young man. He channeled that anger in his novels writing about Black-on-Black pretensions and the intolerance felt by middle-class African Americans, like his mother.

Another major experience that riveted his attitudes occurred when his brother, Joseph, Jr., mixed chemicals for a gunpowder demonstration and the experiment exploded in his brother’s face. When they rushed Joseph, Jr., to the hospital, doctors refused treatment due to Jim Crow laws. Himes said, “That one moment in my life hurt me as much as all the others put together.” The accident blinded his brother for life.

Free from prison, Himes returned to Cleveland in the middle of the Great Depression, and married his first wife, Jean Johnson. He joined the Works Project Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency in the Roosevelt administration. Himes was assigned to the WPA Library Project but because he never finished college, he mostly worked as a ditch digger, a waiter, and a groundskeeper.

Through the WPA, he met the poet and novelist Langston Hughes (1901-1967) who introduced him to contacts in the literary world. Himes became interested in the Communist Party for its commitment to racial equality, which also influenced his writing and his criticisms of America’s caste system. While he never joined or associated with the Communist Party, his interest, and an article he wrote (“Negro Martyrs are Needed,” May 1944) caught the attention of the FBI, which opened a 95-page file on him, which remained active from 1944-1964.

Himes and his wife moved to Los Angeles where he worked briefly as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers and for the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at San Pedro. At both places, he experienced racism. His first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, (Doubleday, 1945) was based on the discrimination he felt in Los Angeles.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Himes wrote, “Wartime Los Angeles seethed with a tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes.”

In his autobiography, Himes wrote:

“Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.”

Despite his inability to get ahead, he continued to write. But Himes’ first three novels were not well received. His second and third novels were Lonely Crusade (Knopf, 1947) and Cast the First Stone (Coward-McCann, 1952).

After his marriage failed, his parents died, and disillusioned by American prejudice against Black people, Himes fled to Paris in 1953. Despite his literary output, wealth and recognition had passed him by. Furthermore, he was frustrated with American publishers who urged him to soften his books suggesting readers would find violent Black characters upsetting, and especially if his angry characters participated in sex. According to crime and mystery columnist J. Madison Davis, in writing about If He Hollers Let Him Go, the publisher Doubleday “made Himes back off, so that the desire in the manuscript by the main character to punish a white woman by rape was obscured.” (World Literature Today, March 2018).

Himes stayed in Europe for the rest of his life, except for a few visits to America. At one point, during a ten-month stay in New York, he was so down on his luck that he pawned his typewriter and stood in line, each morning with other men, hoping to get day’s work washing dishes. Meanwhile, he could see his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, sitting on newsstands as a mass-market paperback. He found a lawyer who helped him get a royalty check which covered his ticket back to France. He said if he had stayed in New York, he would have killed someone.

Himes was disappointed that his writing didn’t enjoy the same critical acclaim as African American novelists Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) and James Baldwin (1924-1987). Even Ellison held him in low regard and thought of him as “an ex-con with a pen.” Baldwin, writing from France, said, while “he saw flashes of power and insight (in Lonely Crusade), Mr. Himes seems capable of some of the worst writing on this side of the Atlantic.”

One day, French editor Marcel Duhamel (1900-1977), who in 1945 founded the Série noire publishing imprint, encouraged Himes to write a detective novel. Himes said he didn’t know how. Duhamel said, “Start with a bizarre incident…and see where it takes you. As for style, follow the example of Hammett and Chandler: avoid excessive exposition, avoid introspective characters and employ dialogue to convey movement. Above all, include action. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what—only what they’re doing.”

At the age of forty-six, Himes embraced the advice, and his new direction recharged his career critically and commercially in France. He wrote his first novel in the detective series called The Real Cool Killers (Avon Nook, 1959). He said he drafted the book in ten weeks while drinking two bottles of wine a day, washed down with Jamaican rum, and reading William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931). He likened it to “writing directly from the American Black’s secret mind.”

Europe loved his detective novels as he pivoted away from writing about racism and social protest and focused on making the lives of his Black characters more realistic and cinematic.

He got a contract and an advance of $1,000 to write his next detective novel, which he originally called The Five Cornered Square. In France, the title became La Reine des Pommes (The Queen of the Apples), while in the U.S. it was published as For Love of Imabelle but later renamed, A Rage in Harlem (1957). In this novel, Himes introduced his famous Black police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

While Himes had only briefly visited Harlem, the Upper Manhattan, New York City, neighborhood famous for its African American heritage, he based his new characters on people he had met and knew in Cleveland’s underworld and in the penitentiary. The noir novel is a police procedural with violence, blatant sexuality, alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, and is a realistic portrayal of Harlem’s social spirit and depravation.

Chester and Lesley Himes

That first detective novel, was only 200 pages long, but it won France’s Grand Prix de Littérateur Policière, the most prestigious award for crime and detective fiction (1958). That same year, he met Lesley Packard, a 30-year-old British journalist and white woman. She wrote for The New York Herald Tribune and interviewed him, which led to a long-term relationship. In 1959, Himes suffered a stroke. Packard left her job to care for him and they eventually married in 1978.

The sixth detective novel in the series, Cotton Comes to Harlem (Chatman Book, 1964), is his best known. Critics called it monumental as it started the African American cop-and-detective phase of novels during the 1960s and 1970s. The novel was adapted into film in 1970 and directed by Ossie Davis (1917-2005).

In the novel, police officers, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, trace a bale of cotton throughout Harlem and search for the $87,000 the poor people of the neighborhood gave to the flim-flam Reverend Deke O’Malley. In the opening scene, Himes describes a vacant lot where O’Malley sells tickets during the “Back-to-Africa Movement.”

“The hot summer night was lit by flashes of sheet lightning, threatening rain, and the air was oppressive with dust, density and motor fumes. Stink drifted from the surrounding slums, now more overcrowded than ever due to the relocation of families from the site of the new buildings to be erected to relieve the overcrowding. But nothing troubled the jubilance of these dark people filled with faith and hope.”

Himes’ prose followed a hard-boiled style, lean and gritty, fast paced, and laced with humor, while touching on serious social themes within the Black community and the role of police.

His next novel, The Heat’s On (1966),was adapted into film and retitled as Come Back Charleston Blue (1972). The first novel in the series, A Rage in Harlem, was produced as a film in 1991.

He celebrated his success by buying a Jaguar and boasted, “It was his main purpose for writing crime fiction.”

Himes wrote nine novels in the Jones and Johnson detective series. The two always appear together and act in tandem in the chaos and violence of Harlem. In the first novel, For Love of Imabelle, a villain throws acid in Coffin Ed’s face leaving him physically and emotionally scarred. As a result, Ed is quick to violent rages. His partner Grave Digger Jones is the restraining one whenever his partner used excessive force on suspected criminals. On the other hand, Himes often painted his protagonists as filled with foolish excitement and funny exaggeration.

In describing his characters, Himes wrote, “It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger’s would bury it…Both were tall, loose-jointed, sloppily dressed, ordinary looking, dark-brown colored men. They didn’t like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves.” (A Rage in Harlem).

Interestingly, and anathema to modern conventions of crime novels, Himes did not introduce Jones and Johnson in that first detective novel until chapter eight, as he used the opening chapters to describe the people and their conditions in Harlem. He described life there as grotesque, violent, and absurd.

“I see things as a writer, and I write about crimes in the Black ghetto. I’m a kind of reporter who offers solutions to the problems in a ghetto where crime just happens to play a part. The humor in my stories is the dark humor of the ghetto. I did not invent it, because it was there already. I used it.”

In 1969, his novel Blind Man with a Pistol was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America. Late in life, he said, “The detective stories were the best of my writing and the best of my thinking and I am willing to stake my reputation on them.”

With his new-found notoriety in France and America, he inspired a new generation of Black writers in the post-civil-rights era. Hard-boiled novelist Walter Mosely called Himes, “One of the most important American writers of the 20th century…A quirky American genius.” Critics later hailed Himes as “the father of Black American crime writing.”

In addition to his seventeen novels and sixty short stories, Himes wrote two autobiographies: The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976).

While Himes successfully turned his life around in the latter third of his career and finally earned recognition as a brilliant literary talent, he remained an unsympathetic figure. Acquaintances and critics said he struggled with alcoholism and was often difficult to work with. In-between his two marriages, he engaged in a series of volatile and brutal relationships with several women, including a failed liaison with Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) at the Yadoo artists colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Instead of focusing on revising his prison novel, Himes spent more time getting drunk and tried to seduce the 26-year-old Highsmith. She followed him into his room one night but rebuffed him when he tried to kiss her.

In 1967, he moved to Spain with his wife, Lesley. They spent their last years in the small coastal town of Moraira, where he wrote his memoirs. Himes said, “he had been looking for somewhere Black people weren’t considered the shit of the earth. It took me forty years to discover that such a place does not exist.”

Multiple strokes eventually deteriorated his health and he died in 1984, at the age of seventy-five from Parkinson’s disease. Following Himes’ death, Lesley worked with New York agent Roslyn Targ to keep his literary legacy alive through translations and publications of his books. Lesley Himes passed away in 2010 at the age of eighty-two.

Author’s Notes:

Himes’ unfinished novel, Plan B, (University Press of Mississippi) was published posthumously in America in 1993, nine years after his death. This vivid and passionate novel is the last in his Harlem series and while it begins as a hardboiled detective story, it transitions to an apocalyptic fiction of violent revolution. The novel was completed and edited by Michael J. Fabre and Robert E. Skinner who “skillfully reconstructed this provocative work, retaining the raw anger of the original and incorporating revisions that Himes had projected.” (Publishers Weekly, Jan. 4, 1993).

In the dramatic final scene, police officer Gravedigger Jones kills his partner Coffin Ed Johnson before Jones is killed by a radical community leader. In the novel, Himes expressed his conviction that the violent overthrow of American society is the only solution to racism.

Fabre is the co-author with Edward Margolies of The Several Lives of Chester Himes (University Press of Mississippi, 1997). Skinner co-edited with Fabre Conversation with Chester Himes (University Press of Mississippi, 1995).

Biographer Lawrence P. Jackson’s book, Chester B. Himes: A Biography (W.W. Norton, 2017) won the Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America in 2018.

Jim Crow laws, which began as early as 1865 and lasted until 1968, were a collection of local and state statutes used to legalize racial segregation by denying African Americans the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education, or take advantage of other opportunities. Individuals who defied Jim Crow laws were subject to arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence, and death.

On the advice of Truman Capote (1924-1984), Highsmith attended the Yadoo artist colony in 1948 with Capote. In her two month stay there she drafted her first novel, the noir psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train (Harper & Brothers, 1950). Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) adapted the novel into film in 1951.

Hitchcock took advantage of Highsmith as it was her first novel and only paid her $7,500 for the rights. The screenplay was written by Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), Whitfield Cook, and Czenzi Ormonde. Chandler called it a “silly little story.” Chandler often butted heads with Hitchcock and although he wrote two drafts of the screenplay, he was dismissed from the project. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards.

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Jenny Milchman

    This piece–both a literary portrait and a history review–truly exemplifies the “la plus ca change” saying. It’s painful and illuminating to read; thank you. The irony of that unfinished novel and its title!

  2. Chris Goff

    What a great write up on a literary talent who deserved better. It’s very sad how many great talents receive their due posthumously. Though I’ve read Chester Himes, he had many more novels out there than I knew about. Guess I better get to reading.

  3. Karna Small Bodman

    What a fascinating tale about an obviously extremely talented writer who did, indeed, make an incredible transition in his life….hopefully an inspiration to others who face great challenges!

  4. Lisa Black

    What an amazing life. I learned about the tragic Ohio State Pen fire when I toured the Mansfield Reformatory (where Shawshank Redemption was filmed). Being from Cleveland, I will have to investigate his legacy there on my next visit.

  5. Tracy Clark

    What a comprehensive piece. I didn’t know some of this information about Himes.