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The Heat's On Paperback – November 28, 1988
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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“A rattlingly good action melodrama spiced with a maximum of humor and a minimum of self-consciousness.”
—The New York Times
“One of the most important American writers of the 20th century. . . . A quirky American genius.”
“Some of the most exciting—and comic—crime novels ever written.”
—The Washington Post
“Chester Himes is the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
From the Inside Flap
From the start, nothing goes fright for Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. They are disciplined for use of excessive force. Grave Digger is shot and his death announced in a hoax radio bulletin. Bodies pile up faster than Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones can run. Yet, try as they might, they always seem to be one hot step behind the cause of all the mayhem--three million dollars' worth of heroine and a simple albino called Pinky.
Top customer reviews
As usual, Himes is better at the first 95% of the story than he is in wrapping up the last 5%. As usual, female characters are, at best, conniving villains or throwaway props. The good stuff is so good that these quibbles hardly matter. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.
Himes's control of language to set a scene is powerful. When the detectives enter a stripper bar to eat, you can smell the sweat. When there is a car chase, you bounce in your seat. When Harlem has a heat wave, the pages would cook eggs.
Fans of hardboiled, crime and detective fiction will not be disappointed by the plot or action. The body count is high. Betrayal and corruption the way of life. These are mixed with many scenes of farce and humor, often having to do with blacks outwitting whites by playing to the whites' racial stereotypes to achieve a criminal goal. Himes clearly puts a lot of energy and enthusiasm in these passages.
Himes can compare in quality to Chandler and Hammett, and he clearly is commenting on and developing their novels, plots and style. But another comparison that made sense to me is to the modern versions of Batman (Frank Miller and the first two movies). Batman always wins against each criminal, but they keep always coming and victory against anarchy and crime is never secure. The price Batman pays to fight crime and keep the city safe is high, and he loses most of what he values, from wealth to health to love. About halfway through the book Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones become like Batman superheros, archetypes or symbols rather than normal people. The physical damage they take and survive in the novel is beyond what an actual human could stand in reality. The book becomes about their symbolic struggle to retain a sense of personal worth, moral code and agency amidst the degradation, racism and crime that surrounds them. While they survive this book to be in a sequel, it is not clear to me that they will make it in the end. They've lost their faces to scars and acid, and for most of the novel, their detective badges. What will Himes leave them in the end?
The novel has some very deep weaknesses, that one must simply overlook to get to the good parts, as they have no possible justification. The "ending" is a joke. The characters stand around and talk for a few pages and "wrap up" the plot. Himes had his fun with all the subplots, deaths, and misadventures, and decided he had reached his page limit. Coffin and Gravedigger were not even directly responsible for stopping the heroin, so the joke's kinda on them. Also, Himes does not place any female characters in a sympathetic or active light. Sister Heavenly (a female drug-dealer) does get several scenes of agency, intelligence, and ambition, but she is portrayed as self-hating (she bleaches her face) and her ending is not pretty even by the standards of the book. It is fair to say the novel is very male centered.
This was my first Harlem Detective story, but it won't be my last, as I now plan to read them all. Himes should be much more widely known. Perhaps this novel is too bleak to achieve classic status, but read the book and decide for yourself.