Violence as an Aesthetic Project in Chester Himes’s The Heat’s On and Blind Man With a Pistol


Chester Himes

Chester Himes

By Samuel O. Doku

Chester Himes is largely regarded as an avant-garde African American detective fiction writer, who successfully inverted the paradigmatic structure and the thematic construct of the genre. In his life time, Himes believed he could map detective fiction in an aesthetic form to help solve some of the problems of his day existing in urban ghettos across America. To this end, Himes created characters who uphold violence in his fiction, but the seriousness of his aesthetic is that those who live by violence in novels do not get away with it. Throughout his detective fiction oeuvre, Himes seems to be exposing the reality that the culture of violence in American society claims too many innocent lives, and at the same time, he also seems to be critiquing the easy availability of guns, which facilitates the perpetration of crimes in society.

Subverting the Detective Fiction Genre

In this mode of thematic design, some critics see Himes as subverting the structure of the genre because he focuses more on the characters than on the detectives and interjects historical subtexts into his detective fiction. Structurally, Himes avoids the sophistication of most detective fiction writers by refusing strictly to follow a formula. For example, many detectives are cigar-puffing bachelors who work with seemingly putative sidekicks, but Himes’s detectives are married and do not smoke.

Again, Himes’s work is an inversion of the detective fiction formula because although he has elements of the supernatural in his works, the detectives do not rely on the supernatural to solve crimes. Indeed, Himes parodies the supernatural to reveal the insincerity of some of the people who call themselves believers in God. For instance, Deke O’Malley in Cotton Comes to Harlem is the founder of a church in Harlem, but he is also a sweet-talking swindler. Furthermore, the form is seen as subversion as such because Himes delays the introduction of his detectives, initially making the reader to believe he or she is reading a realistic or naturalistic novel that is exposing the helplessness and hopelessness of the marginalized and society’s aversion to their plight.

Scott Bunyan argues that historically, politically, and socially, the black experience in America is unique, so the detectives and characters Himes created are equally exceptional. However, Himes is by no means the first African American detective fiction writer. According to Paula Woods, Rudolf Fisher, a physician and a writer during the Harlem Renaissance, was the first African American to write a mystery novel, The Conjure-Man’s Death, with exclusively black characters in it. Following Fisher, Alice Dunbar Nelson (wife of Paul Lawrence Dunbar) and George Schuyler also contributed to the African American mystery novel genre (63) before Himes paved the way for Walter Moseley.

Harlem as Vanishing Frontier

However, what is exceptional and first about Himes’s mystery novels is that his stories, as Woods points out, are not about the black middle class; they are about the subaltern and kitsch lifestyles, and Harlem provides a unique setting as a vanishing frontier that nurtures violence in the characters. The detectives also respond to this violence in a way that sometimes surpasses the violence perpetrated by the criminals. The aim of this project is to help contribute to the existing scholarship on this innovative but under-appreciated author. In this paper, I examine violence as aesthetic projects in the thematic structures of The Heat’s On and Blind Man with a Pistol.

To the criminals in The Heat’s On, violence is an acquired taste, a conditioned response to the rigors of a capitalistic society. How then does Himes map violence as an aesthetic project in The Heat’s On? Aesthetics is broadly defined as the study of the taste of beauty whether in the form of the comic, the tragic, or the sublime. As a nineteenth century social critic, Thomas de Quincey, once observed, “We dry up our tears, and have the satisfaction, perhaps, to discover that a transaction which, normally considered, was shocking, and without a leg to stand upon, for example murder, when tried by principles of Taste, turns out to be a very meritorious performance” (6).

The Ontology and Teleology of Violence in Harlem

Bunyan attributes the criminals’ proclivity to violence to naturalism and history, for he believes socio-economic forces have conspired to control the lives of blacks in Harlem (9). He argues that even some of the buildings in Harlem were purposely designed to contribute to, even hasten the abject conditions and depravity of the subaltern who occupy those buildings. In this sense, the ontological attributes of the subaltern are naturally shaped and impacted by the appalling conditions of the buildings and result in a teleological end that breeds violence and encourages vice. If the violence in Himes’s first detective novel, A Rage in Harlem, is steered by counterfeiting and fake gold bars, and Deke O’Malley’s embezzlement of $87,000 from eighty-seven families provides the symptom for weeding out crooks in Cotton Comes to Harlem, the pursuit of heroin valued at $2 million on the streets is reason enough for the criminals to kill and be killed in The Heat’s On.

The depiction of violence in The Heat’s On is seemingly Himes’s way of critiquing patriarchy and empowering feminism because Sister Heavenly, who lives under a ruse as a faith healer, proves to be as ruthlessly vicious and romantically devastating as any of the callously diabolical, tantalizingly violent male figures in the novel. Furthermore, the mere fact that the two detectives are suspended following the inadvertent death of Jake Kubansky, a white dwarf drug pusher, brings awareness to a critical racial tension existing between whites and blacks in Harlem. The critique here is that the liminal space the two detectives operate in simply does not deal with whites who are criminals.

In the words of Himes, without absurdity, life would be languid and monotonous, so the characters in The Heat are absurd. Himes explains why he creates absurd characters in the second volume of his autobiography: “Racism introduces absurdity into the human condition. Not only does racism express the absurdity of the racists, but it generates absurdity in the victims” (MLA 1).  Gus and Ginny Harris, a janitor and his wife, are convinced that a cozy life style awaits them in Ghana if they are able to purchase a cocoa plot in that country.

They go ahead with the plan, but on the eve of their departure, Gus is mysteriously murdered. Johnson, Jones, and the other cops seek the help of Ginny in their attempts to solve the homicide, but Sister Heavenly brutally murders Ginny, mistakenly thinking Ginny was carrying a bag containing heroin on her.  Furthermore, Pinky, the couple’s giant albino errand man, sets off a false alarm in a church that brings the cops to the place. Pinky is identified as the one who set off the alarm, but he absconds as he is being interrogated by the police. In the course of pursuing Pinky, Jones and Johnson ran into Kubansky. In their attempt to solicit information from him, the two Harlem detectives beat the life out of him. Kubansky, later on dies, and the two cops are suspended for using excessive force in the solicitation of information.

Conundrum in The Heat’s On

The puzzle in The Heat’s On is, “Why was Gus Harris killed on the eve of his departure to Ghana?” Initially, Harris is seen as a mere janitor, but like many of the characters in the novel, he is a pusher. In his last push before saying good-bye to the shores of Harlem, Pinky, the nitwit albino giant, by his own confession to the detectives, killed Harris because he would not let him accompany them to Africa. Sister Heavenly is a believer in materialism and has an insatiable lust for money, so when Pinky told her that Gus had a wealth of treasure hidden somewhere, she thought it could have been hidden in Gus’s dog. After Gus’s murder, she tracked the dog down and saw him with a cop. She steals the dog, takes him to a hotel, chloroforms, and kills him. She disemboweled the dog, thinking the treasure (heroin) was in the dog’s intestines, but she was wrong. The drug mogul Benny Mason later kills Sister Heavenly, but only after she had killed Ginny.

Violence then becomes a unitary space the characters crave with reckless abandon, and as a result, it becomes an immanent part of their experience. These are perhaps some of the characters Pierre Schlag has in mind in “The Aesthetics of American Law,” in which he argues for an inquiry into the attributes of aesthetics. “Aesthetics,” Schlag notes, “is broader than an understanding of beauty, and is better seen as a discipline that pertains to the forms, images, tropes, perceptions, and sensibilities that help shape the creation, apprehension, and even identity of human endeavors” (qtd. in Butler, 203). In The Heat’s On, violence shapes the sentimentality of the characters, including its detectives. Violence to the detectives is the means to reach their desired end of making Harlem peaceful and for that matter, habitable. This is enunciated by Johnson at the end of The Heat’s On in a conversation with his wife: “What hurts me most about this business is the attitude of the public toward cops like me and Digger. Folks just don’t want to believe that what we’re trying to do is to make a decent peaceful city for people to live in…. People think we enjoy being tough, shooting people and knocking them in the head” (174).

Non-Cooperation of the Subaltern

The people’s perception of Johnson and Jones as rugged, callous, and vicious, indicates people’s unwillingness to provide voluntary information to the detectives. To that end, the detectives have to resort to violence and intimidation for information in hopes that, one day, Harlem would be a peaceful and law-abiding city where its residents could have the equanimity of mind to go about their businesses diligently. But A.Robert Lee asserts that the detectives are “tired, obviously aging, and the pair learns more clearly that black ghetto crime derives more from the wider national equations of racism and power” (79). This is a prudent indication that the problem confronting the detectives in Harlem is bigger and deeper than their mere enthusiasm to curb violence and avert criminality as Himes illustrates in Blind Man With a Pistol.

Violence as Menu of the Poor

Some critics map violence as a symptom of the lower class because of the perception that those occupying the lower echelons of society are more likely to be uneducated and unemployed, therefore, are poor and are more prone to committing crimes. Terry Eagleton applies the definition of aesthetics to the middle and lower classes of society: “The construction of the modern notion of the aesthetic artifact is inseparable from the construction of the dominant ideological forms of modern-class society and indeed from a whole new form of human subjectivity appropriate to that social order” (798). In this mode of argument, Eagleton attributes a Lockean episteme to criminality and violence grounding them in the tabula rassa concept in which Locke postulates that social conditions help shape the lives of individuals. In the modern stratification of society, those in the lower rungs of society are seen as more prone to perpetrate violence. Violence then becomes an ideological construct in the community, and it is used to keep the lower class at the bottom of the social ladder of mobility.

In The Heat’s On, Harlem is a nation-state in which subaltern groups find themselves stuck in-between progress and decadence, and as a result, some of them simmer with a desire for violence.  Bunyan identifies with this notion of using violence to stratify society and observes the residuality of the violence in Harlem by tracing its origins to 400 years of America’s oppression of blacks in this country (340). Indeed, since antebellum America, violence perpetrated against black people permeates the pages of all the slave narratives and other books written by African Americans before Himes settled down to write his detective oeuvre.

The Sainthood of Slave Masters as Violence Is Public Avatar

In slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Jacobs’s autobiographies, they mention brutalities slave overseers and slaveholders such as Edward Covey, John Plummer, and Dr. Flint inflicted on the enslaved, including women and children. In Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods, the violence is not physical; it is psychological, and it comes in the form of ingratitude from a white master (Maurice Oakley) to his loyal servant (Berry Hamilton). In W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, he uses the Jim Crow South as the thread to weave the thematic structure of the book, and in Jean Toomer’s Cane, violence resurfaces to mimic the thematic structure of the slave narrative.

Himes explicitly vindicates violence as an aesthetic form in an interview with John Williams: “[When] I began writing the detective stories, I wanted to introduce the idea of violence […] . American violence is public life, it’s a public way of life, it became a form, a detective story form” (qtd. in Denning, 155). What Himes is alluding to is that violence has been part of the American psyche since the Revolutionary War, so his detective fiction would represent “America,” as such, by mapping violence as an aesthetic project in it. As Jay R. Berry asserts, “Himes also surpassed the limits of the genre in two important respects—through his innovative use of African American history as an integral part of his later novels and his evocation of a sense of place, grounded in the Harlem area which rivals Chandler’s Los Angeles” (123).

Thus, if aesthetics is the appreciation of what is beautiful as well as what is ugly, violence is an aesthetic in The Heat‘s On because while the criminals resort to violence or the threat of it as a strategy to intimidate and to immobilize, the detectives apply it ruthlessly to subdue suspects and to make Harlem peaceful. Although violence is part of the hard-boiled detective fiction formula, the way Himes employs it in his mystery novels exposes Harlem as a disintegrating society where anarchy and lawlessness reign supreme. For example, Detective Jones is shot in The Heat, but he survives his gunshot wounds.  As Robert Ruhm acknowledges, “The world depicted in the tough guy novels was irrational and disorderly. Violence was the means to all ends” (qtd. in Berry, 116). Violence is, indeed, the means to all ends not only in The Heat’s On but also in the gamut corpus of Himes’s detective fiction.

Drug as Phantasmagoria in The Heat’s On

Another novelty in Himes’s detective fiction is his successful linking of the African American experience to the appalling social conditions in Harlem, by then a vanishing frontier. Absurdly, the heroin that gives the criminals reason to kill is in fact non-existent. As Berry explains, “The object of desire in The Heat’s On are five eels stuffed with heroin that has been shipped in from France, but the reader discovers at the end of the novel that the eels were inadvertently destroyed before the actual story opened” (122). Sister Heavenly thought because the heroin was stuffed in the eels, Harris might have hidden them in his dog hence the killing of the dog in search of the heroin. Many lives are lost in the singular chase of the drug cache with the avaricious ambition of possessing it, but long before the fatal chase began, Pinky intervened to render the chase absurd by throwing the drugs into the Hudson River. This problem of staking one’s life on drugs is still extant in many African American communities, resulting in the loss of many innocent lives.

The loss of innocent lives becomes more pronounced in Blind Man With a Pistol, Himes’s last book in his Domestic Fiction Series. In Blind Man, the violence degenerates into total dystopia and seems to mimic one of the race riots in Harlem that Herman Melville wrote about in one of his poems, “House-top.” David Cochran argues that in the typology of violence, Himes’s detectives’ character types are, in fact, anti-types of Micky Spillane’s detective, Mike Hammer. In terms of sheer brutality, there is no difference between the way Hammer employs his use of coercion and Himes’s two detectives (22). But Hammer functions in a city (New York) whose citizenry is a Manichean dichotomy of good and evil, strong and weak, old and young, rich and poor.

This overarching dichotomy facilitates things for Hammer in his work. Unlike Hammer, however, Jones and Johnson have to deal with criminals’ view violence as a way of life. The absence of easily discernible characters in Harlem makes it a universe whose center can simply, not hold. Eventually, it is all dystopia in Harlem as a blind man with a pistol kills a pastor trying to broker peace and a cop before he is shot and killed by gun-toting cops. Thinking the blind man was an innocent bystander who has been killed, blacks go on a rampage, and hell breaks loose in Harlem. The encroaching dystopia proves too much for Jones and Johnson to deal with.

An Absurd Cast of Characters in Blind Man

The cast of absurd and shady characters in Blind Man includes a polygamous old black Mormon, Reverend Sam with twelve wives and many children, some of whom walk nakedly around; he seeks another wife after the death of one of his wives; Dr. Mubuta, a character similar to Fisher’s Dr. Frimbo, who claims he has a sperm elixir that can resurrect youthful passion of individuals to have sex; and Mr. Sam, a ninety-year old man who like Gilgamesh, the hero in what is known as the world’s first story, goes to Mubuta to have his youthful drive for sex revived. In addition, there is Fat Sam who is disenchanted with his work as a laborer, and a blind man with an unbelievable penchant to gamble. Another violence is witnessed in Mubuta’s office after his effort to administer a magic potion to Mr.Sam goes awry. In an ensuing melee, those present in the office start shooting themselves, which results in their deaths except Mubuta.

Paradoxically, a mysterious man appears from nowhere and kills Mubuta. If the bizarre killings in Mubuta’s office illustrate the level of disintegration in Harlem, it is the killing of a white sexual deviant, Henderson, that sends Jones and Johnson to investigate his death. As the detectives investigate Henderson’s death, it leads to the killing of a black deviant, John Babson, by another white sexual deviant, Patricia Bowles Davies. Like Sister Heavenly in The Heat, Davies stabs Babson, first from behind and then several times and kills him instantly. After the murder of Babson, Edward Covey (a janitor from Jamaica) becomes the only person who could provide closure to the senseless murders, but he is also murdered by an unknown assassin. Further, there are clashes between members of the “Brotherhood” and the “Black Power” movement. While the Brotherhood seeks integration, Black Power preaches nationalism and hankers for separation. The views of the two groups symbolize the philosophical disquisitions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

Subway as Setting

In the last but one chapter, Himes shifts the setting into a subway where the blind gambler, angry for losing money in a crab game is infuriated by Fat Sam’s outbursts over  supposedly his inadequate pay and the indignity that comes with poverty. Seeking attention from riders on the subway, Fat Sam is not aware that the man he is mocking for directing his gaze at him is, indeed, blind. After noticing that the blind man is the object of the laborer’s derision, a female passenger goes to the defense of the blind man. A sleek, fat, yellow, black preacher in black mohair suit reading New York Times” (BMP 231) decides to occupy the liminal space between those arguing to broker peace: “Brothers! Brothers!,” he pleads, “you can settle your differences without resorting to violence” (BMP 231). But a white passenger, presumably angered that black people are creating commotion on the subway, yells, “Violence hell! What these niggers need is discipline.” Although he is blind, he is not deaf, so on hearing the “n” word from the white passenger, the blind man shot back: “Beware, mother-raper! Beware!.”

After the blind man’s warning, the preacher withdraws, but the white man goes and attacks the blind man. The blind then man warns that if he is touched again, he would “blow the white man away.” Here again, the black preacher steps in and pleads:  “Peace, man, God don’t know no color” (BMP 232). Having had enough, the blind man draws a pistol but instead of the white man, he ironically shoots the black preacher. After shooting the preacher, the blind man gets out and takes to his heels. Gun-toting cops are let loose after him, but he shoots and kills one policeman before he is eventually killed.

When observers see the pursuit of the blind man by the cops and the way he was killed, they erroneously think the white cops had gunned down an innocent man, so quickly word is spread that the cops had killed an innocent black man and the rioting starts. Johnson and Jones, who before the incident are near a building being demolished and shooting rats escaping from the building, appear on the scene but realize that there is nothing they could do about it. They call their superior, Lieutenant Anderson who told them to try and contain the violence in spite of its enormity, but the two detectives could only look on empirically. As David Cochran points out, the killing of the black preacher by the blind man symbolizes a residual rage on the part of African Americans whose first victims are usually other blacks (14).

Bhaktin’s Heteroglossia

The fact that the white man joins in the argument and shares in the liminal space occupied by the black preacher becomes problematic. This is the problem Mikhail Bhaktin tries to address in his theory on heteroglossia. Bhakhtin states: “[Discourse] is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents. The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships,   merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group: and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile” (qtd. in Cochran 14).

Bhaktin’s concept of heteroglossia is a perfect paradigm for the scene on the subway that eventually leads to the chaos.  The blind man, however, was agitated and reacted violently in the “tension-filled” space on the subway. The result was dystopia because the emergent violence could not be contained by anybody, not even Harlem’s two famous detectives.

The culture of organized crime in Harlem as a result of a covert involvement of the police chief and his cohorts limit the two detectives; they are rendered inept, completely powerless to do anything about the seeming residual violence. The violence is fueled by the shady behavior of the detectives’ superiors who collude with crooks in a milieu of burgeoning corrupt practices, especially with their roles in a syndicated numbers game that serves as a constant source of cash for the police chief, Captain Brice. Lieutenant Anderson, the two detectives’ immediate supervisor, acts as an accomplice. According to Peter A. Lupsha, Captain Brice’s corrupt behavior has its residual underpinnings: “Organized criminal groups have operated in the United States from its very beginnings. Whenever there is an opportunity to enhance profit,…enterprising individuals will take advantage of the opportunity, risking potential sanction in order to accrue windfall profits” (145).

Certainly Captain Brice clearly risks the potential of being sanctioned by society, but the windfall profits from the illegal numbers game are too tempting to be ignored by him. To this end, Blind Man is a metonymy of a society om the verge of an apocalyptic doomsday.  It is violence that erupted like lava from a volcano after years of ingrained anger and unjust treatment of the subaltern. However, the chase of the blind man has historical connotations. In antebellum America, the black man was always chased—either to go and work, or he was chased with bloodhounds to be arrested and returned into slavery, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. In freedom, lack of opportunities to bring about dignity and self-respect to the African American in fictional Harlem also results in the subaltern committing crimes and indulging in violent behavior as a result of which the detectives are compelled perpetually to chase the criminals.

 A Pistol in the Hands of the Wrong Guy

In the words of Himes, the novel Blind Man With a Pistol figures what happens if a pistol finds itself in the hands of a blind man—innocent people lose their lives. The killings in Mubuta’s office are absurdly senseless and atrocious, humorously barbaric, and funnily brutal. But the cornucopia on the subway was the result of the disrespect the white man exhibited to the blind man. The white man engages in antebellum discourse and uses derogatory and pejorative words such as “nigger,” “discipline,” and “boy” to address the blind man. To the white man, he still thinks he has the legitimately patriarchal right to emasculate the blind man simply because he is white and the blind man is black. But, the blind man proves that in liberty, he has been empowered to defend himself against any form of emasculation and disrespect hence the shooting; something he could not have done in antebellum America.

The consequence of the white man’s disrespect and the blind man’s violent reaction is the total chaos that erupted even as Jones and Johnson become incapable of solving the crimes they initially set out to find clues to. After Henderson and Babson are killed, the cops thought that Covey, who came to identify Babson’s body as the person who briefly went to rent an apartment in one of Covey’s units, is also murdered by unknown assassins. As Himes states in his preface to the novel, “all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.” However, it seems some of the violence in Blind Man was carefully organized and meticulously executed. James Sallis explains the chaos in Blind Man and the hegemony that thwarts the efforts of Jones and Johnson in solving some of the murders: “Assigned to find the killer of a cruising white homosexual, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed roar through a landscape of crazy preachers, children eating from troughs, the cant of black revolutionaries….Neither the original nor subsequent murders are solved….” (130-1)

In the ensuing confusion, the two detectives seem to be the only sane people in Harlem, trying fruitlessly to bring some order to a dystopic situation, bring meaning to killings arising out of bitterness, and stay devout in a hopelessly corrupt society.  As Nelson substantiates, “Because of institutional pressures, the murders are left unsolved; Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are forbidden to follow a path of investigation which would inevitably lead to powerful whites” (62). This is suggestive that as “powerful whites” set off the minority to kill one another, they look on as W.E.B. DuBois would say, “with amused contempt and pity” (2). At this juncture, it is crucial to note that violence in American culture has its historical under-linings. Since the moment the original settlers abandoned fair negotiations and resorted to force to acquire lands from Native Americans, as Himes points out, violence became a routine American way of life.

Hoodlums in Charge in Blind Man

A disintegrating Harlem provides the setting for Himes’s detective fiction. Like in any disintegrating society, family values, and love of community are an anathema because of the ease with which families are wantonly killed or browbeaten by hoodlums. Although born and educated in Ohio, Himes set his series in Harlem because it is the city that helped unearth some of the finest black writers of our time.

Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, George Samuel Schuyler, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Fisher are just a few of the writers produced by the Harlem Renaissance. Of course, DuBois provided some of them with the needed inspiration. But by the time Himes started to write his series, the Harlem that was the hub of black literati (the Talented Tenth) had degenerated into a society of decadence where money laundering and racketeering, con artists, transvestites, pimps, drug peddlers, and violence had become the intriguing tableaux with which the city was identified. Thus, in Himes’s detective fiction oeuvre, Harlem is a city with the image of a vanishing frontier, a city of violence, a jungle where powerful people like Captain Brice rule.

A Melting Society

This dissolution, this melting of a society that once was the fountain of hope, pride, and excellence for the gifted and talented is a contrast that prompted Himes to create detectives who sway from the norm in his detective fiction oeuvre. Nelson accentuates the uniqueness of the detectives: “Opposed by violence and unreason, they [the detectives] struggle courageously to uncover truth; trapped in a hopelessly venal institution, they remain incorruptibly honest; burdened with a body of law ludicrously in appropriate to the conditions of Harlem, they are lonely dispensers of justice” (56).

Many of the methods the detectives use in finding solutions to crimes defy the law because, just like the criminals, the detectives see violence as a means to an end, not an end itself. In Harlem, this rhetorical climax, “You blink once, you are robbed; you blink twice, you are dead,” situates Johnson and Jones in a difficult position, so they adopt a method of “shooting first and interviewing the dead bodies later” (Akainya, 7).

Violence is the music of life in Harlem, and the detectives dance perfectly to its beat. Shane Stevens also accentuates the decadence of Harlem:  “It soon became apparent that Himes was creating a world of interlocking people every bit as fully formed as William Faulkner’s world in his imaginative YoknapatawphaCounty. Yet unlike Faulkner’s creation, Himes’s Harlem was real…. It lived, laughed, cried and died and gave birth all over again to hope and despair” (13). In so doing, Himes portrays a realistic picture of Harlem, a Harlem in which the black man’s aversion and dislike of the white man is pervasive, so he does everything to resist the usual mode of antebellum stereotypes into which blacks are categorized: contented servants and sycophants.

The detectives try to provide some hope to those of their brethren living in hopelessness, but since violence is a psychological construct of resistance, the numerous murders in Harlem make it a city of desperation, a city of delusion, and a city without motivation. By the time Himes gets to his sixth book in the series, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Harlem seems to be rebounding with some hope, but the city is all discombobulating and dystopia in The Heat’s On and Blind Man With a Pistol.

The Genesis and Demise of the Black Middle Class

In The Heat’s On, the setting also depicts the genesis and demise of the black middle class at Strivers’ Row as well as slums that depict the wretchedness in which those living on the fringes of society try dangerously to survive. Strivers’ Row was a symptom of the Harlem Renaissance, so when the Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked its venom on the literary movement, the black middle class became an atypical presence at Strivers’ Row. However, with the emergence of dystopia in Blind Man with a Pistol, comes graffiti-laced murals, old dirty houses, dangerous alleyways, and treacherous pavements that resonate throughout the fiction to delineate fictional Harlem’s eventual decadence.

Out of the imperfection of Harlem’s decaying condition, Himes unfolds the degrading conditions of inner city life, appalling conditions brought about by unmet needs of the past, the insecurity of the present, and the hopelessness of the future. Nelson feels Himes captures the unique black experience in his detective fiction, a theme, he says is missing from the works of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. As Nelson notes, “In the Harlem Domestic series, [Himes]…. brightens his sordid criminal Harlem with the wild comedy, eccentricity of character, and exotic low-life that he inherited from the celebrated black writers of the twenties” (54).

Dubious Characters

For instance, Pinky is absurd and Sister Heavenly is grotesque in The Heat’s On; however, Mubuta is witless, Reverend Sam is eccentric, Mister Sam is interesting, Fat Sam is outrageous, and Patricia Bowles Davis is ruthless in Blind Man with a Pistol. Interestingly, Muller applies the theoretical concept of the apocalypse to the setting of Himes’s detective fiction series. He asserts: “The sense of the apocalypse—whether in fire or ice—is the dominant impression generated by Himes’s Harlem universe. The climate of his nine Harlem crime novels does not admit any relief or moderation in violent extremes of weather” (83). Among Himes’s novels of apocalyptic summer are The Heat’sOn and Blind Man with a Pistol. Although The Heat’s On and Blind Man with a Pistol were set in the summer, a season that symbolizes hope, the weather is so sweltering that it robs the characters of any hope of continuing to live in Harlem’s decaying landscape with its apologetic social conditions.

Evidently, in The Heat’s On, Himes seems to be critiquing mainstream America’s racism and consequent refusal to empower black police officers to dispense the same treatment to white criminals as they do to blacks. For, the two detectives are not suspended when they kill a perfume thrower who threw a bottle of perfume at the officers in All Shot Up (Cochran), they get away with it when they mercilessly slap Gus Harris in The Heat’s On until his head starts spinning like a top, but when out of their usual mode of soliciting information, they inadvertently beat the white dwarf drug peddler, Kubansky as a result of which he collapsed and later on died, the cops are quickly suspended.

And in Blind Man, Himes seems to be admonishing that if blacks are continually neglected and left out of America’s melting pot, and if arrogant white folks do not stop their groveling treatment of black men, the situation could explode into an uncontrollable dystopia. How then could Himes have been overlooked for a long time as an important writer in not only African American literary canon but also in American literary pantheon? Although still widely under appreciated, Himes’s thematic messages in his detective fiction oeuvre seem to have been heard by America.

Works Cited

Akainyah, Kofi. “No Thrills in Harlem.” The Critical Response to Chester Himes. Ed.        Charles                 L.P. Siler. Westport: Greenwood P, 1999. 7-9.

Berry, Jay R. “Chester Himes and the Hard-Boiled Tradition.” The Critical Response to   Chester                Himes. 117-26.

Bunyan, Scott. “No Order from Chaos: The Absence of Chandler’s Extra-Legal Space in The                 Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Moseley.” Studies in the Novel 35 (2003):             339-365.

Butler, Brian E. “Aesthetics and American Law.” Legal Studies Forum27 (2003): 203-15.

Cochran, David. “So Much Nonsense Must Make Sense: The Black Vision of Chester Himes.                 The Midwest Quarterly.38.1 (1996): 11-30.

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About Dr. Sam Doku
Dr. Samuel O. Doku is a professor and a writer. He earned his Ph.D. in English with concentration in African American Literature from Howard University. He is a W.E.B. Du Bois scholar whose book is titled Cosmopolitanism in the Fictive Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois: Toward the Realization of a Revolutionary Art. His articles have been published on Google Scholar, in the International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities, and College English Association Magazine (CEAMAG).