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Chester Himes: Writing from the fire

Chester Himes had a hard life, even for someone growing up in the 'thirties. He took some knocks early on, knocks many people get in life; it was the racism he encountered in LA that made him bitter, a bitterness which put a fire in his belly and informed so much of his best work. Himes probably would have drawn little consolation over the fact he was breaking new trails for  authors such as  Walter Mosley. But he did.

Himes was born in Missouri to middle class parents in 1909. The family settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where Chester attended East High School in Cleveland. He was admitted to Ohio State University, but while a freshman, an unfortunate prank got him expelled. In 1928 he was sentenced to 20-25 years for armed robbery. He started writing while at the Ohio Penitentiary, publishing his first story in 1931, and being published in Esquire in 1934. He also wrote a novel, Yesterday Will Make You Cry , about  the fire at the penitentiary in 1930. Himes was paroled in April 1936; he worked part time jobs and wrote. Langston Hughes, already established as a writer of merit, gave Chester valuable assistance.

Himes moved to Los Angeles in the '40s, where he worked as a screenwriter. He also wrote two novels, If He Hollers, Let Him Go, and The Lonely Crusade. He came to the attention of Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, a miserable little bigot, who fired him. Now, as Himes put it later, "under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate". By the 1950's, Himes had enough of the bigotry, and settled in Paris, France,a more amenable place where Himes could write and not encounter racism.

And write he did, turning out some of his best work, work which was well received.  He published his best known novels, the "Harlem Detective" series, featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, NYPD detective based in Harlem. Rough men in rough times, they are two of the most vivid characters in American hard-boiled fiction. Three of the novels. Cotton Comes to HarlemA Rage in Harlem, and The Heat's On have been made into feature films. Classic hard-boiled detective fiction, well worth seeking out.

In 1969, Himes moved to Spain, where he died from Parkinson's Disease in 1984.