A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes #BookReview

CriminOlly thinks: A wonderfully entertaining crime novel that mixes comedy and tragedy in 1950s New York 4/5


Text Review

A Rage in Harlem is the first novel in Chester Himes’ 9 book Harlem Cycle, a series of gritty crime novels written in the 1950s and 60s and set in Harlem. The series features some recurring characters, most notably its two black police detectives, Coffin Ed John and Grave Digger Jones.

The book concerns a Harlem resident who gets swindled out of thousands of dollars by a group of con artists, assisted by his wife. His attempts to get the money back, and the snowballing violence that results, form the basis of the story. The plot twists and turns along the way, but this is much more a book about a place and its people than any particular events. It ends up feeling as much like a social history of Harlem as it does a crime novel.

Himes is a fantastic writer, and his talent in depicting the borough and the black community that lives there is evident on every page. You get to feel the heartbeat of Harlem as the characters stride through it, with even the minor players feeling like real people.

That makes the structural racism that the black characters face even more chilling. Himes never dwells on it, but passages like the following have chilling impact.

There were pictures of three colored men wanted in Mississippi for murder. That meant they had killed a white man because killing a colored man wasn’t considered murder in Mississippi.

That’s not to say that this is a bleak book. It’s often uproariously funny, especially in the first third as the con unfolds. The blend of tragedy at the fate that is befalling the main character and comedy at how obviously he is being ripped off is absolutely delicious. The dialogue throughout is written with a deft comic touch and the action, when it happens, is brutal. That mix of so many flavours makes for a very satisfying read that’s very easy to recommend to crime fans.

Book Details

Title: A Rage in Harlem | Author: Chester Himes | Publisher: Penguin | Pages: 224 | Publication date: 25th March 2021 (first published 1957) | ISBN: 9780241521083 | Source: Purchased


Jackson’s woman has found him a foolproof way to make money – a technique for turning ten dollar bills into hundreds. But when the scheme somehow fails, Jackson is left broke, wanted by the police and desperately racing to get back both his money and his loving Imabelle. The first of Chester Himes’s novels to feature the hardboiled Harlem detectives ‘Coffin’ Ed Johnson and ‘Grave Digger’ Jones, A Rage in Harlem has swagger, brutal humour, lurid violence, a hearse loaded with gold and a conman dressed as a Sister of Mercy.


Content Warning: Racism, transphobia, drug addiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: