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The Real Cool Killers Paperback – November 28, 1988
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To detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, it looked like an open and shut case. After all, Sonny Pickens was still standing over the body of Ulysses Galen, smoking gun hanging from his hand. Only one problem: Sonny's gun was loaded with blanks. There were plenty of people who wanted Galen dead, but who was responsible? Sonny? A jealous husband? Or one of the street toughs from a gang calling themselves the Real Cool Moslems? Coffin Ed and Grave Digger pound the mean streets of 1950s Harlem in search of the Real Cool Killer.
“The action is slapstick, preposterously violent—Hieronymus Bosch meets Miles Davis.”
—Walter Kirn, The New York Times
“One of the most important American writers of the 20th century. . . . A quirky American genius.”
“For sheer toughness it’s hard to beat the black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Himes never received the recognition he deserved for his books—they combine elements of George V. Higgins, Elmore Leonard, and Richard Stark, with a bleak vision all their own.”
—The Washington Post
“Himes’s Harlem detective series . . . are remarkable for their macabre comic sense and wicked and nasty wit.”
—Ishmael Reed, Los Angeles Times
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THE REAL COOL KILLERS, the second in Himes's series of mysteries involving Jones and Johnson, is not nearly as formally complex as its predecessor, the modernist masterpiece A RAGE IN HARLEM, but it is also not as messy and much more approachable and tightly written. In some ways, its one of the finest in the series: the almost Rube-Goldberg escalation of events in the opening pages reaches an absurdist and Rabelasian crescendo when a gang of young hoods ("The Moslems") dressed in long robes get involved, and then the novel reverses itself and becomes extremely tightly controlled until its end, when the involvement of one of the detectives' daughter with the gang becomes unraveled. Himes is also in this book very effective in his sociological portrait of racism in America at mid-century and how it led to the terrible living conditions in Harlem at the time, and as usual his mastery of atmosphere is exceptionally high. This may be the best place to start with the Harlem Detectives series if A RAGE IN HARLEM is too formally intimidating (although it should by all mans be read too, once a reader becomes familiar with the two detectives and Himes's style).
Enter Chester Himes' remarkable detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. They arrest the man they think is responsible for the murder, but in a melee with a youthful gang of Harlem toughs called the Real Cool Moslems, the suspect escapes.
The rest of "Killers," the second in Himes' Harlem Cycle of hard-boiled detective thrillers, is spent with the detectives trying to track down the fugitive and the street gang members who helped him escape. Johnson is removed from action by suspension for most of the book, so Digger has to try to break the case as a solo.
While corpses pile up around him like cordwood, Gravedigger's efforts lead him to a multi-racial house of ill-repute, a bar that doubles as a den for a sadomasochist and a tenement apartment that serves as headquarters for the Real Cool Moslems, a group of juvenile delinquents whose wise-cracking ways mask a violent disregard for human life.
During his investigation, Jones encounters the usual coterie of low-life criminals, whose antics are sketched with Himes' customary acid-edged wit. Digger also uncovers the secret lives that several of the key characters have been living - including murder victim Galen, who turns out to be less respectable than he first appeared.
The chase ends in a wicked twist, with the storm of violence we have come to expect from a classic Himes tale.
Though "The Real Cool Killers" does not meet the same high standard as "Cotton Comes to Harlem," it grabs the reader's attention from the Joe Turner lyrics on the opening page and holds it through the conclusion. I rate it four out of five skulls.