Title: A Rage in Harlem
Rating: 4 Stars
This is a classic crime noir kind of novel with a twist. It’s set in 1950’s Harlem.
As I read this, I was actually reminded of a modern Florida crime novel. You have the protagonist, Jackson, a sweet, honest man caught up in a web of intrigue that threatens to drown him. You have his woman, Immabelle, who Jackson absolutely dotes on and trusts implicitly, so of course, she helps con him out of every penny he has, and then some.
Desperately trying to dig himself out of that hole, Jackson ends up stealing even more money to cover up the money that he lost. He then gambles away that money, so now he’s even more desperate. All the time he’s making trips to his minister to confess his sins and receive spiritual guidance. His misadventures form the spine of the plot.
You have Jackson’s brother, Goldy, who shares none of Jackson’s innocence. He goes around permanently dressed as a nun to get people to give him alms for the poor. Oh yeah, he’s also a constant drug addict. Driven to take care of his innocent brother, his street smart sense drives the two ever closer to the thieves.
You have criminals, the ones who steal from Jackson, thinking of themselves as masterminds when in reality they are as dumb as a box of rocks.
And finally you have the detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. They are a force of law unto themselves in Harlem, grimly going about the business of solving crimes and ruling the denizens of their precinct with the iron grip of the law and large dollops of gun play and violence.
There’s definitely enough odd characters, extreme violence, and out of control plot elements to satisfy even the most jaded of Carl Hiassen and Tim Dorsey fans.
That makes it the oddest of all. For the past year or so, I’ve been reading some of the classic crime novels of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. I understand that they are the product of the time in which they were written in, but to the modern eye, they seem hackneyed, stale, and at best, somewhat woodenly written.
A Rage In Harlem is different. It was written in 1957, and except for the obvious time specific aspects, could have been written even today. It’s impressive when a crime novel can hold up for over 50 years and still seem current.
What makes this even more impressive, for all of the time that that these crazy, hilarious, violent crimes are taking place, Himes is also making trenchant political commentary on what it means to be black living in 1950’s America. There are no civil rights, there is just an assumption that if you’re black, bad things are going to happen to you and that’s the way things are. There’s a sense of fatalism that runs through nearly every black character when he/she is confronted with a figure of authority.
It was an entertaining read that has not lost a step in over 50 years and mixes all of that with a strong political message. This is a true classic.