Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chester Himes' All Shot Up

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Chester Himes' All Shot Up (1960) is the fourth out of nine novels that involve his Harlem police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. It is also the fourth novel of the series I've read, though my reading has been haphazard and not in order. But that's my loss: they're great.

In this one the first two chapters (ten pages in my edition) go down before Coffin Ed and Gravedigger appear; in those ten pages a gold Cadillac runs over a woman and kills her, but she gets up just in time for a black Buick to run her over again. A black sailor, Roman Hill, is driving that newly-bought Cadillac of his; his girlfriend Sassafras, and the dealer who sold him the car, Mister Baron, are in the car with him. The Buick, it seems, is chasing after them, and pulls them over; in it are three cops, two black and their leader white; they witnessed the hit and run, and they have suspicions about the purchase of the Cadillac. They're open to bribery, but in the end they simply attack Mr. Baron, take the cash paid for the Cadillac, which he's holding, and everything else he has, too, and then they take the Cadillac. After Roman Hill recognizes the cops are simply stealing his car, he takes their Buick and starts off in pursuit. The whole scene is witnessed by a black man stealing tires off some other car on the street. As a mystery reader, you figure he's the witness our heroes are going to have to find.

By the end of the novel, we learn that everything we've just seen can't be trusted. The Cadillac isn't really gold; the cops aren't really cops; Mister Baron isn't even a Mister. The woman who was run over once or twice wasn't a woman. And Coffin Ed and Gravedigger never talk to that tire-thief: instead he has his head chopped off in a traffic accident.

Is it any wonder I don't trust even Wikipedia anymore?

Coffin Ed and Gravedigger are the sort of cops who operate half outside the law while making sure that the right outcome occurs in the end, albeit with a little over-the-top violence along the way.

The main events circle around Caspar Holmes, an important, but corrupt, leader in black Harlem, and when the precinct lieutenant hears that Caspar Holmes has been found unconscious on the sidewalk in the company of two dead men, he calls in Coffin Ed and Gravedigger. The story moves along swiftly to a mostly surprising ending.

As you might guess from the men dressed as women and women dressed as men, the events of the novel take place around Harlem's gay subculture. The tone of the novel was surprisingly tolerant for 1960. But since I'd read Chester Himes' sex parody Pinktoes some years ago, that wasn't entirely surprising. But still, it was pleasantly, a little bit.

All in all, this was pretty good. I would start with an earlier one, if I was new to Himes. This one felt just a little like he'd fallen into too comfortable a groove. But not to be missed if you're a fan.

There's a dead body, a hat, a couple of broken objects (building, sidewalk) in the picture. But I think for now I'll go with the car/truck category, both of which appear on this Harlem street.

Silver Age. Car/Truck. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Also this book has been on the shelves here since 2012, so it also qualifies for my other challenge: the Mount TBR Challenge.

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