25 October 2013

Coffin Ed & Grave Digger Jones


by R.T. Lawton

Go back in time to the Sixties. The Police Action in Korea was over and the Vietnam Conflict was going full bore. Riots raged in the streets of many major U.S. cities, for one reason or another. Political agendas were being pushed by every group that thought they had the solution for everybody else. People believed anything was possible, even while poverty dragged at the lower classes. Change was blowing in the wind but still had a long ways to go.

Now find your way to Harlem, above 110th Street, in Manhattan. This is no longer the glitz, glamour and jazz culture of the Roaring Twenties Harlem when cash and booze flowed freely. This is the afterwards Harlem of decaying tenant buildings, corrupt officials, hard to get money and the erection of instant slums. Booze still flowed in bars, after hours joints and house rent parties, but now weed and H had been added to fuel the mixture. Crime ran rampant and violence became an occupational hazard. In the environment of Harlem Precinct, only a certain breed of cop could enforce the law.

Into this stewpot of pimps, prostitutes, weed heads, junkies, con men, gangsters, numbers bankers, thieves, muggers, and killers, author Chester Himes created two police detectives to keep law and order. The citizens of Harlem nicknamed them Coffin Ed and Grave Digger. They were there to protect the common people, the working stiff, the unwary, the naive square. Yet most times, Ed and Digger found it was all they could do to keep the lid on the city's garbage can.

Chester Himes tells their story better than I, so in his words:

Coffin Ed Johnson & Grave Digger Jones

The car scarcely made a sound; for all its dilapidated appearance the motor was ticking almost silently. It passed along practically unseen, like a ghostly vehicle floating in the dark, its occupants invisible.
This was due in part to the fact that both detectives were almost as dark as the night, and they were wearing lightweight black alpaca suits and black cotton shirts with the collars open....they wore their suit coats to cover their big glinting nickle-plated thirty-eight caliber revolvers they wore in their shoulder slings. They could see in the dark streets like cats, but couldn't be seen, which was just as well because their presence might have discouraged the vice business in Harlem and put countless citizens on relief. (Hot Day Hot Night, 1969, originally Blind Man With a Pistol)

Lieutenant Anderson had been on night duty in Harlem for over a year. During that time he had come to know his ace detectives well, and he depended on them. He knew they had their own personal interpretation of law enforcement. Some people they never touched--such as madams of orderly houses of prostitution, operators of orderly gambling games, people connected with the numbers racket, streetwalkers who stayed in their district. But they were rough on criminals of violence and confidence men. And, he had always thought they were rough on dope peddlers and pimps, too. So Grave Digger's casual explanation of Dummy's pimping surprised him. (The Big Gold Dream, 1960)

Coffin Ed was defiant. "Who's beefing?"
"The Acme Company's lawyers. They cried murder, brutality, anarchy, and everything else you can think of. They've filed charges with the police board of inquiry..."
"What the old man say?"
"Said he'd look into it..."
"Woe is us," Grave Digger said. "Every time we brush a citizen gently with the tip of our knuckles, there's shysters on the sidelines to cry brutality, like a Greek chorus." (Hot Day Hot Night, 1969)

Harlem

On the south side, Harlem is bounded by 110th Street. It extends west to the foot of Morningside Heights on which Columbia University stands. Manhattan Avenue, a block to the east of Morningside Drive, is one of the corner streets that screen the Harlem slums from view. The slum tenants give way suddenly to trees and well-kept apartment buildings where the big cars of the Harlem underworld are parked bumper to bumper. Only crime and vice can pay the high rents charged in such borderline areas. That's where Rufus lived. (The Big Gold Dream, 1960)

The Valley, that flat lowland of Harlem east of Seventh Avenue, was the frying pan of Hell. Heat was coming out of the pavement, bubbling from the asphalt; and the atmospheric pressure was pushing it back to earth like the lid on a pan. (The Heat's On, 1966)

"...The Coroner's report says the victim was killed where he lay. But nobody saw him arrive. Nobody remembers exactly when Chink Charley left the flat. Nobody knows when Dulcy Perry left. Nobody knows for certain if Reverend Short even fell out of the goddamned window. Do you believe that Digger?"
"Why not? This is Harlem where anything can happen."  (The Crazy Kill, 1959)

"Trouble?" Grave Digger echoed. "If trouble was money, everybody in Harlem would be millionaires."  (The Real Cool Killers, 1969)

A Few Notable Citizens

Uncle Saint
Both fired simultaneously.
The soft coughing sound of the silenced derringer was lost in the heavy booming blast of the shotgun.
In his panic, Uncle Saint had squeezed the triggers of both barrels.
The gunman's face disappeared and his thick heavy body was knocked over backward from the impact of the 12-gauge shells.
The rear light of a truck parked beneath the trestle in the middle of the avenue disintegrated for no apparent reason. (The Heat's On, 1966)

Jackson & Imabelle
Assistant DA Lawrence studied Jackson covertly, pretending he was reading his notes. He had heard of gullible people like Jackson, but he had never seen one in the flesh before.

*           *           *           *             *
Suddenly a Judas window opened in the door....
There was a turning of locks and a drawing of bolts, and the door opened outward.
Now Jackson could see the eye and its mate plainly. A high-yellow sensual face was framed in the light of the door. It was Imabelle's face. She was looking steadily into Jackson's eyes. Her mouth formed the words, "Come on in and kill him, Daddy. I'm all yours." Then she stepped back, making space for him to enter. (For Love of Imabelle, 1957, originally A Rage in Harlem)

Casper Holmes (crooked Harlem politician)
Casper Holmes was back in the hospital.
His mouth and eyes were bandaged; he could not see nor talk. There were tubes up his nostrils, and he had been given enough morphine to knock out a junkie.
But he was still conscious and alert. There was nothing wrong with his ears and he could write blind.
He was still playing God. (All Shot Up, 1960)

al fin

Chester Himes was born in 1909 to middle class parents, served time in Ohio for robbery, took up writing while in prison, moved to France to find a better life, won France's La Grand Prix du Roman Policier award for the best detective novel of 1957 (first in his Harlem detectives series), has his original manuscripts in the Yale University Library, and later died in Spain. Three of his detective novels were made into movies, titled: A Rage in Harlem (For Love of Imabelle), Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back Charleston Blue (The Heat's On).

7 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

Himes was a terrific writer. I heard he planned to wite a book in which his heroes died fighting a Black uprising, but never got around to it. Reminds me of the death of Jaes McClure's Kramer and Zondi characters.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Loved this guy. I remember his using the expression 'mother-raper,' and being too naive to realize what he was paraphrasing: back in the day, there was obviously more editorial censorship (or restraint). The last OF hIMES' bookS I read was BLIND MAN WITH A PISTOL---a terrifically evocative title.

Anonymous said...

Some of the drug dealers in Buffalo, N.Y., where I live, have Judas windows & transact all their business through them. I never knew what they were called.

R.T. Lawton said...

Rob, rumor has it that book was written, but not published. In it, (SPOILER ALERT) one of the two detectives turns radical and kills the other. The book may be published in the future, but if it is, don't think I'll read it. I'd prefer to remember Ed and Digger as Himes first created them.

David, you weren't the only naive one on that expression of his.
As a side note, I first found Himes' detective novels in a used book store in Washington DC, when I was attending the BNDD Basic Agents Class in early 1971. I quickly bought all of that series I could find. Tried a couple of his other books, but didn't have much interest in them. To some degree, you could say that Himes was the forerunner of Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlings series.

Louis A. Willis said...

Himes Coffin Ed and Grave Digger novels were the first I read featuring black folks as police detectives. I later read The Conjure-Man Dies: A mystery Tale of Dark Harlem” by Rudolph Fisher, written in the 1930s before Himes’s Harlem novels. It also is a police procedure but the detective and his medical sidekick are not as violent as Coffin Ed and Grave Digger.

A Rage In Harlem was the first novel in the series that I read. I knew I would enjoy the novels because the faces of the bad guys and the cops who went after them were black, something I discovered in fiction only after I was in college. What did the folks in Harlem think about the “sheriffs of Harlem”? They “believed that Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson would shoot a man stone dead for not standing straight in a line." What the Harlem folks respected was “big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed's pistol would kill a rock and Grave Digger's would bury it."

When I read those lines, I thought these dudes are badder than Mike Hammer (I had read “I The Jury” while in high school).

Himes had to go to France to get his detective novels published, but he and Fisher laid the ground work for Mosley, Bland, and other black writers who entered the mainstream in the 1980s.


R.T. Lawton said...

Louis, you quoted some of my favorite lines. I just didn't have room for all of them, and instead tried to let snippets of all the novels tell the story of those two detectives and the Harlem scene for that time period.

Dixon Hill said...

R.T., you sent me straight to the book store with this one!