Roderick Hart's Reviews > A Rage in Harlem

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
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Jul 19, 11


Jackson is a poor man who works for an undertaker, H Exodus Clay. And he is the sort of person who, in trying to solve a problem, only makes it worse. His problems begin when he is taken in by con men who relieve him of what little money he has, blowing up his landlady’s oven in the process. Since the con leads to him paying off a fake Federal Agent with money stolen from his employer, things quickly go from bad to worse. And his refusal to believe that his woman, Imabelle, could be involved, while touching, doesn’t help much either.

Jackson is an innocent surrounded by people on the make. One of those is his brother Goldy, who dresses up as Sister Gabriel, a Sister of Mercy, and relieves shoppers entering Blumstein’s store of as much change as he can. In return he is liberal with quotations from the Book of Revelation, some of them made up by himself. (He suspects the author was high on drugs when he wrote it, symptoms he can recognise from his own experience.) Goldy also has a sideline in tickets for a dollar a time – ADMIT ONE, SISTER GABRIEL. Since he doesn’t say in so many words that the admission is to heaven he isn’t technically committing an offence.

As Jackson’s troubles multiply he turns to two people for help. One is the Reverend Gaines, with whom he prays. The other is his brother, who quickly realises that Jackson is being played for a sucker by all concerned, including Imabelle, the love of his life. Goldy also figures out that the con men are working on a second, bigger con involving the finding of a lost gold mine. Imabelle is involved in this one too.

The plot moves rapidly, and has elements of farce about it, though the comedy is hard-edged. The story is intricately plotted, but very successfully. The dialogue is strong and some of it painfully funny. His exchanges with his landlady, both in person and over the phone, come into this category. Both are Christians, but with a differing take on the sort of behaviour this implies.

Two police officers are involved, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Ed has acid thrown on him by one of the con men, leaving Grave Digger to sort things out, which he does with considerable violence. They do not figure as largely in this book as they do in later titles.

Though this book was first published in 1957, it easily stands comparison with contemporary crime fiction. There are no serial killers with weird motivations, there are no technicians pouring over crime scenes with hi-tech gear. Instead we have a large cast of characters, a great deal of local colour, a fast-moving story and quality dialogue.

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