Cotton Comes to Harlem is a brilliantly written crime novel by Chester Himes. It tells the tale of two cops, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, as they trace a bale of cotton throughout the city of Harlem. After a hijacking occurs at a “Back-to-Africa Movement” rally, where black families were giving one thousand dollar, what many claimed as their life savings, to Reverend Duke O’Malley, the $87,000 that was raised went missing. Jones and Johnson must go through the city, to find this money and give it to the poor people of Harlem.
“The Starry-eyed black people were putting their chips on hope.”
Coffin Ed Johnson ace black detective in Harlem. His face is scarred by thrown acid, giving him an explosive bad temper Grave Digger is also an ace black detective in Harlem working with Coffin Ed to find out who the hijackers were and get back the people’s money. Early in the novel, the people are Harlem are filled with hope and excitement as they prepare for their travel back to Africa. The book sets the scene nicely, as the 3rd person omniscient character says:
“The hot summer night was lit by flashes of sheet lightning, threatening rain, and the air was oppressive with dust, density and motor fumes. Stink drifted from the surrounding slums, now more overcrowded than ever due to the relocation of families from the site of the new buildings to be erected to relieve the overcrowding. But nothing troubled the jubilance of these dark people filled with faith and hope.”
The reader can already see that the novel goes deeper than just a regular hard-boiled fiction, but also plays on social theme of the time like gentrification. The novel also hits on issues such as “colorism” in the black community and the role of police in black communities.
The plot is fast-paced with a lot of action and exciting parts. For the average reader, some jokes made me lost because of the content of the jokes. With is being set in a mainly African-American neighborhood, the humor, at least for me, came from the honesty of things that one would see in neighborhoods of the sort. It borderlines on stereotypical, but it is written in an honest way that I did not feel stereotypes as I did tropes of the black community. There was also a major focus on setting intertwined within the story. There was a pretty clear plot, though some of it could get confusing, especially with the number of characters that are not necessarily needed for the development of the plot. The story keeps the reader engaged as there are many twist and turns occurred, especially towards the end. Himes also does a good job of having the reader being invested in solving the crime as well.
There has been a film adaptation of the novel in 1970. There were significant changes made in the novel. For example, a character the challenges the Back-to Africa Movement with his own movement called “Back-to -the-South” does not appear at all in the novel, changed plot significantly. The cast includes Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge as Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones respectively, as well as Calvin Lockhart, Redd Foxx and Judy Pace. Himes really wanted the focus to be on O’Malley, yet Hollywood focused more on “Harlem policemen.” This novel also falls into the category of “Blaxploitation” and movie also enhances the humor, sometimes to uncomfortable degrees. It takes stereotypes up a degree. I would reccoment the novel, just for fun, not in lieu of the novel.
Overall, I would give this novel a solid 4 out of 5 stars. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and loved the fact that there were detectives of color. I also enjoyed the honesty in the novel when it came to the portrayal of African-American communities. There were parts of the plot that took me away from the book and I would get confused by some characters and their role in the novel, which is why the fifth star is not shaded. I would recommend this novel to any reader who wants to take a look at Harlem, or any other black community and strong detective characters.
Himes, Chester B. Cotton Comes to Harlem. Vintage Books, 1988