Black Crime Fiction: An Introduction

I. Introduction
II. The Holy Trinity – Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines
III. Gone, Forgotten and Waiting for Discovery – Robert Deane Pharr & Clarence Cooper Jr.
IV. The Best of the Rest
V. Lost to History – Jerome Dyson Wright & Charlie Avery Harris
VI. The tip of the Iceberg (but not necessarily Slim) – Books for further consideration
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Years ago I came across a veritable treasure trove of crime fiction. I was at a local library looking through the books that were for sale when I saw a forgotten box of books tucked away in the corner. Curiosity got the better of me and what I discovered inside the box were worn paperbacks with dated covers by authors that I had never heard of. Books with titles like Whoreson, Poor Black and in Real Trouble and The Jones Men. Books that featured characters with names like White Folks, Kenyatta and Giveadamn Brown. All of these books would tellingly bear the stamp of the Maryland DOC.

At best I was only mildly aware of what I was looking at. The librarian behind the counter dismissingly priced the entire lot of books at $5 barely even glancing at what I was holding. So of course I bought the whole box and set about voraciously reading them all over the next few months. This box of books would prove to be my introduction to the world of Black Crime Fiction.

The Black Crime Fiction writers have produced a fully realized strain of crime fiction that has developed completely separate from the established canon. One that has its own history. Not claiming Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as its foundation but instead the books of Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim & Donald Goines. Developing its own cache of stock characters. Here, for the most part, there will be no tales of private eye’s but instead we will find plenty of stories about pimps. There won’t be a single dame in sight but there will be whores. Not to mention the tales that are filled with drug dealers, drug users, inmates, con men, numbers runners and yes even gangsters.

Over the years I have had conversations with other readers of mystery, crime and pulp fiction and I have been continually surprised at the blank looks that I receive when mentioning most of these authors. I can’t help but be surprised that these books aren’t regarded as the crime fiction classics that they are. Other then Chester Himes, who is still criminally under read, a few readers had read a book or two by Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines but the other writers remained unheard of. These books remain light-years and a few city blocks away from any established canon.

It’s my belief that this same group of readers who like mystery, crime and pulp fiction would like these books and authors if they knew of them. The success of Hardcase books proves that there is a market for classic crime fiction, yet despite their continued success the Black Crime Fiction writers have gone unnoticed in traditional circles of mystery/crime fiction readers. They have been unable to draft off of the success of their white counter-parts.

All of which got me thinking. I started to wonder why there wasn’t a greater acceptance of the Black Crime Fiction writers into the mystery/crime fiction canon. There isn’t any grand conspiracy here but rather a few factors that have kept these books not even under the radar as it were but completely off of the map of mystery/crime readers

First, the readers of mystery/crime fiction are by and large a white audience. Second, the Black Crime Fiction writers were marketed towards and, especially in the case of the writers in the 1970’s that sold very well, bought by a black audience. Both of which collude to make sure that these writers never saw wider success.

What’s interesting about this is that others have felt the pull to try and draw more attention to some of these writers by chronicling their own experiences. Often times, like mine, it starts with a serendipitous finding of a book then trying to seek out others like it.

Paula Woods wrote of her discovery of Rudolf Fisher’s novel entitled The Conjure-Man Dies in 1991. The Conjure-Man Dies is widely, and incorrectly, cited as the first black private eye novel and the first black mystery novel. This discovery would eventually lead to her writing a book called Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes, published in 1995. It is a definitive work and should reside on every serious mystery reader’s shelf.

In 17 years not much has changed and my own discoveries mirror her own. She wrote:

The extent of the black presence in mystery fiction has yet to be “discovered” by many mystery enthusiasts, regardless of race, or by many mystery scholars.

In 1997 Mark Gerald wrote an article for Salon entitled Old School Noir: My Search for African-American Noir’s Lost Legacy in which he wrote of his discovery of Donald Goines. Gerald’s love of the genre would lead to him founding Old School Books, an imprint dedicated to re-publishing many black crime fiction classics, that was partnered with W.W. Norton. Many of the books that you see here will be from this line. Even though they have again largely fallen out of print it remains to date the single greatest effort to restore them to their rightful place.

He wrote the following:

In their lifetime, most wrote for publishing houses that didn’t appreciate their talents and didn’t have a clue as to how to market and sell them. It is little wonder their works failed to catch on. History has been even less kind. Today, it is almost as if these authors never existed, and their searing, scorched-earth accomplishments are all but forgotten.

James Sallis once wrote “Crime fiction remains the urban fiction”. Well, this is urban fiction.

II. The Holy Trinity – Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines

In this section I want to take a closer look at the three writers who in many ways, due to their immeasurable influence, constitute the foundation of Black Crime Fiction: Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines.

Chester Himes

Chester Himes was born in 1909, he died in 1984 from Parkinson’s disease at the age of 75. He is arguably the most important black author of the 20th century.

Himes was never able to find a measure of success here in the States. He found that his critical reception in France was much greater so he moved there in 1969. The interesting thing about the reception that Himes work received in Europe was that it was labeled as absurdist though he didn’t think of it that way. He would later write:

“And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.”

To the extent that any author does so Himes’ fiction contained many autobiographical elements, but I think that a special mention should be made of The Quality of Hurt & My Life of Absurdity, his autobiographies. It’s not often that an author has the opportunity to pen his own life’s story. When such an occurrence is published the results can often be powerful and enlightening and this pair of books certainly qualifies. In it we will learn of his time in prison, his attempts to get published, his relationships with editors who often times wanted radical changes to be made on a text before consideration for publication.

Long time Himes aficionado James Sallis would later write what many consider to be the definitive biography in 2000 called Chester Himes: A Life.

Chester Himes began writing while in prison. This will prove, over time, to be a shared trait with a number of future black crime fiction writers.

Himes, much more so then the other authors discussed here, enjoys a level of popular and especially critical acclaim within the mystery/crime fiction genre. But even this level of attention falls well short of his white counter parts in the genre. Amongst the cognoscenti he has never fallen out of favor but his works do remain relatively unheard of by the mystery/crime fiction community at large.

Himes will be the only writer discussed here today that has a novel published as a part of The Library of America. His novel The Real Cool Killers appears as a part of the Crime Novels : American Noir of the 1950s collection.

He is best remembered for his Grave Digger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson series of books about a pair of Harlem police detectives. These books are classics in the genre.

Bibliography

Novels

If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945)
Lonely Crusade (1947)
Cast the First Stone (1952) aka Yesterday Will Make You Cry
The Third Generation (1954)
The End of a Primitive (1955)
Pinktoes (1961)
Run Man Run (1966)
Black On Black (1973)
A Case of Rape (1980)
Plan B (1993)

Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series

For Love of Imabelle (1957) aka A Rage in Harlem
The Crazy Kill (1959)
The Real Cool Killers (1959)
The Big Gold Dream (1960)
All Shot Up (1960)
Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965)
The Heat’s On (1966) aka Come Back, Charleston Blue
Blind Man with a Pistol (1969) aka Hot Day Hot Night

Collections

The Collected Stories of Chester Himes (1990)
The Harlem Cycle Volume 1 (omnibus) (1996)
The Harlem Cycle Volume 2 (omnibus) (1996)
The Harlem Cycle Volume 3 (omnibus) (1996)

Non Fiction

The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years (1972)
My Life of Absurdity (1976)

The following is an excerpt from The Real Cool Killers:

”A police car siren sounded from the distance. It came from the east; it started like the wail of an anguished banshee and grew into a scram. Another sounded from the west; it was joined by others from the north and south, one sounding like another like jets taking off from an aircraft carrier.

“Let’s see what these real coo Moslems are carrying.” Grave Digger said.

“Count off you sheiks.” Coffin Ed said.

They had the case wrapped up before the prowl cars arrived and the pressure was off. They felt cocky.

“Praise Allah,” the tallest of the Arabs said.

As though performing a ritual, the others said, “Mecca,” and all bowed low with outstretched arms.

“Cut the comedy and straighten up,” Grave Digger said. “We’re holding you for witnesses.”

“Who’s got the prayer?” the leader asked with a bowed head.

“I’ve got a prayer, ” another replied.

“Pray to the great monster,” the leader commanded.

The one who had the prayer turned slowly and presented his white-robed backside to Coffin Ed. A sound like a hound dog baying issued from his rear end.

“Allah be praised,” the leader said, and the loose white sleeves of their robes fluttered in response.

Coffin Ed didn’t get it until Sonny and his friends laughed in amazement. Then his face contorted in black rage.

“Punks!” he grated harshly, kicked the bowed Arab somersaulting, and leveled on him with his pistol as though to shoot him.

“Easy man, easy” Grave Digger said, trying to keep a straight face. “You can’t shoot a man for aiming a fart at you.”

“Hold it, monster” a third Arab cried, and flung liquid from a glass bottle toward Coffin Ed’s face. “Sweeten thyself.”

Coffin Ed saw the flash of the bottle and the liquid flying and ducked as he swung his pistol barrel.

“Its just perfume,” the Arab cried in alarm.

But Coffin Ed didn’t hear him through the roar of blood in his head. All he could think of was a con man called Hank throwing a glass of acid in his face. And this looked like another acid thrower. Quick scalding rage turned his acid burnt face into a hideous mask and his scarred lips drew back from his clenched teeth.

He wired two shots together and the Arab holding the half filled perfume bottle said, “Oh,” softly and folded slowly to the pavement. Behind, in the crowd, a crowd, a woman screamed as her leg gave way beneath her.”

Iceberg Slim

Robert Beck was born into poverty in 1918 and grew up around the Chicago area. He is the godfather of the modern so called Ghetto Novel. He became a pimp at the age of 18 eventually managing over 400 women during his 25-year career. He earned the street name “Iceberg” because he continued to coolly drink his drink at the bar while a shoot out was happening. A bullet pierced his hat and he never moved. He quickly became very successful at pimping and rose to the top of the trade.

He would serve a total of 7 years over several bits including a stretch at Leavenworth. In 1947 he escaped from jail and remained outside for 13 years, all the while continuing to ply his trade before getting caught in 1960 spending the reminder of his time in solitary confinement. He would later write this of that time in solitary “For even now, a new life and a decade later, I will lay odds that until the grave the images and sounds of that violent, gibbering year will stomp and shudder my mind.”

Upon his release from prison Slim retired from street life and moved to Los Angeles, California to try and reconcile with his dying mother. He stopped doing Heroin after her death and became a salesman before the publication of Pimp.

Iceberg Slim’s later novels would show a kind of postmodern playfulness. Iceberg would assert at the beginning of the novels that most of the characters portrayed are real and he is just merely relaying their stories. Here’s an example:

`What a follow-up novel to Trick Baby that story would make!’He said, `I agree, but you couldn’t use real names of the people involved . . . especially those of the police and politicians. I’m squared up, building a brand new life for myself. I could maybe get hit! And you couldn’t be specific about the locale. You could just refer to it as an area or a city in a southwestern state. And maybe, Slim, you could tell the story in the third person to give it a subtle fictionalized facade. Use your judgment to protect me.’I agreed to his stipulations and we made a financial agreement royalty-wise. I set up my tape recorder and for a week White Folks spun out his once in a lifetime tale of his adventures in the heady world of the white long con, and its ultrasonic pace, lush women and scores!The factual story is White Folks’, the closet nigger, told from the point (after leaving Canada) when he roped the seventh mark, in the States, C.P. Stilwell, II, for fleecing against The Unhappy Virgin game. In the interests of vivid delineation of long con game wizard psychology, to afford full reader access to its drama, and for the spectator view of the pulse-slamming scenes and characters of White Folks’ story, I have taken one liberty. As he suggested, I have chosen to write his story in the objective third person based upon the facts as he recounted them.

The prose of Iceberg Slim is invested with a unique slangy flow and jazzy rhythm that would rival if not surpass anything that the Beat Generation could ever have hoped to produced. Not only do we have lines like:
She whipped out a bale of C notes from her outrageous cleavage and tossed it on the bar top. You could have heard two cockroaches fornicating on Mars in the sledge hammer silence.”

 

But also longer examples like this extended excerpt from the preface of The Long White Con:

I was dozing off early in L.A. to store up energy for a series of college rap gigs I’d be off to in a few days. It was several hours before the fetal Seventies would pop from time’s booby-trapped vagina.I was unaware that fate would, within less than twenty-four hours, pop back into my life the most electric black hustler I’d ever known. How could I know on New Year’s Day I’d have a reunion with an unforgettable friend. I mean, Johnny O’Brien, White Folks, the blue-eyed, white-skinned nigger con man from the Big Windy. Dead, black Blue Howard, his spiritual father and mentor, had turned him out on the con.How could I know White Folks would furnish his account of adventures more gripping and fascinating than his exploits in the novel Trick Baby. How could I, or any black outsider, discover the sacrosanct secrets of the big white con except through White Folks, who played it with a top flight mob.The phone jangled like the wake-up bells in a cell house. I picked up to a silk broad’s voice. A chilling sound really, despite the fact that I had expected its owner to contact me. It was Big Apple rotten, glossy and slick as ermine droppings. But how could I know she was tied in to my reunion with White Folks.

`Mister Beck?’ she said. `I’m Josephina, the writer. I’ve arrived, with an inevitable case of jet lag. I’m in Playa Del Rey.’

From the sleazed bowels of the ghetto, I replied, `Welcome to emphysema city. I’ll present you the key at your convenience. Lady, let’s kick off things by dropping the “Mister” tag.’

She faked ingenue flabbergast. `I . . . uh, oh luv! What should I call you?’

I despise phony, pretentious rectums, black and white. I said, `Beck, Bob, Iceberg, Ice, Berg . . . nigger, with love and a smile. Even motherfucker with the light turned down low.’

She handcuffed her breath for an instant. You know, like one of those closet bisexual whores in Long Island emoting snob outrage at the visual atrocity of some lackey peasant sneaking a crap in the shrubbery.

She said, `Iceberg, excuse me for a moment.’

I heard the dulcet bells of crystal toll as some service person arrived to lay out some booze to cushion her jet lag.

I heard her say, `Thank you very much.’ Then, to me, `Hi again . . . it’s still early, why not come here? To get acquainted . . . get the prerequisite things out of the way, before we put together the actual nuts and bolts of the interview and your profile for the magazine.’

I said, `Why not tomorrow night? Even daytime ain’t the right time, no time for a nigger to travel across several police division turfs.’

`What?’

`I mean, night-time is never really the time to even walk Fido out to pee. Some roller in heat, with blood lust, might scribble in a death report. Mine! That he thought I was a deadringer for a mass murderer at large and that the leash was a piece in the dark.’

She chuckled oddly, like I was one of the Camarillo Picasso’s, in the asylum upstate, who was showing her one of my finger paintings executed in poo-poo on her wall.

She said, `How about tomorrow at noon? Surely you won’t need to take precautions then. Mother of Jesus, you’re paranoid!’

`All right, I’ll see you then. Look, white girl, I wouldn’t pull my ride out of the garage until I turned on my hide-out tape recorder to document roller craziness and maybe my murder. If you meet a nigger in these times who ain’t paranoid, you’ve met a nigger dreaming and bucking the odds to die a natural death. Lady, your mag should have arranged a crash course in the black experience before they assigned you to the project!’

She giggled her New York ass off and gave me the address to her pad before she hung up. The jazzy bitch had turned me off before we started.

Now I’m not a supersonic mouthpiece with a law school college course in logic gracing my portfolio. But believe me, sugar babies, I got a Ph.D. in the logical evaluation of ho character. And I sensed that Josephina was a closet ho to her come-blistered diaphragm. I’ve developed a bloodhound’s acuity for smelling out the stench of ho treachery upcoming. And as I indicated, I’ve assembled the nitro item of paranoia in my survival kit. Understandably, I use that item gingerly. You know, with that twang in the tush care that a herpetologist uses heisting king cobra venom.

I tossed the New Year in on my bed. I mulled why the prestigious white mag for men had selected a broad, a white broad, to wiggle on the lap of an ex-nigger pimp across the several states of his rappings gigs. She was suspect as a cobra all right, I decided as I slipped into Josephina-haunted slumber.

In the spring of 1970 in Los Angeles, I was having a sandwich at an open air stand when a slender black guy with a doll face and a raging ambition to pimp swooped down on me from a new crimson Buick Electra, containing the most beautiful young brown skin girl I’d seen in a decade.He draped himself too casually on the bench across the table from me. He had the same eager, familiar look in his eyes as dozens of young black guys have had as they set out to pick and probe for the criminal treasures they believe are buried inside my skull.Trying to stiff-arm him away from the position before he reached for it, I said: “you’ve got a freak machine there. What’ve you done, made foreman at the aircraft plant and decided to settle down with that brown skinned vision?”A pained look came over his face, as if I had clumsily ripped the lace of his lavender see-through shirt. He snorted and leaned back arrogantly and cracked, “Ice! You aint heard? I cut loose from that gig. I’m macking and that vision is humping for me. I’m gonna split to the track in the big fast Windy in a few days and I want to run down the joints where I can cut into the boss pimps and get hip to where my girl can get action.”

I said, “So you’ve just turned out and you think your the greatest. You couldn’t be more then nineteen or twenty. What makes you think you’re so qualified to make it on the fast track in Chicago?”

He looked away and exchanged clenched fist salutes with a trio of young guys passing in a burnt-orange spaceship. He leaned towards me and said, ” I memorized the bible you wrote on the whore game, and I’m so pretty the whores cream their panties when I come on the scene. I’ll have every nigger in Chicago scared the pretty Eli is gonna steal his whore. All the ones I can’t steal, I’ll shake down gorilla-style. And Ice, I can run a bitch up the wall with my boss dick. I know the game, Ice. I’m qualified. I’m ready for the Windy.”

I sat there silently for a long moment looking at his smooth, unlined face and remembered how my own youth was lost and poisoned long ago in the dope-soaked Chicago underworld. I had seen scores of young black duded with more guts, gab and looks than this boastful guy owned who had been mangled on the fast track.

I fought back the disgust and anger I felt; this young guy had all his life, had everything going for him to make it outside the lousy underworld. Now he was wild to chump off his life. I decided to blast his ass off and maybe, at least, turn him away from the fast track.

I said, “Young brother, you came from a nice family and I like you, so I’m going to tell you like it is. There are young pimps in the Windy twenty times faster and smarter than you who can’t score for grits and greens, and they’re so good-looking their asses would make you a Sunday face.

“You read and memorized Pimp, the story of my life, and you didn’t get you coat pulled that pimping is for dudes who are suckers for jail cells and smack dealers? You think pimping is a beauty contest? You think you can fuck? There are johns, tricks in the streets that can lay your whore and suck her cunt so good she’ll have convulsions with diarrhea! You take that cream puff young broad to the city and in six weeks some slicker will pump her rotten with H, and you’ll be flat-ass busted waiting for your folks to send you the fare back home. I wouldn’t even lay a two-bit bet you wont wind up a puddle of shit and blood in some alley.”

I rose from the table and left him with his mouth ajar. He didn’t split to the fast track because I run into him now and then and he always turns his eyes away. An acquaintance of his told me a young Italian customer stole the brown skin vision from the dude and he went back to the aircraft gig. I like to believe that my tongue-lashing had some part in maybe saving the young black for something more rewarding that pimping.

The irony of Slim’s books and especially Pimp is that there is every indication that Beck meant for Pimp to be a deterrent to black men who wanted to enter into a life of crime but instead it became a kind of rule book or bible that unintentionally sent out the wrong message. This lesson has largely been forgotten by history and Ice has now become a walking archetype for the modern incarnation of the pimp as we know him today. Look at this exchange:

In the spring of 1970 in Los Angeles, I was having a sandwich at an open air stand when a slender black guy with a doll face and a raging ambition to pimp swooped down on me from a new crimson Buick Electra, containing the most beautiful young brown skin girl I’d seen in a decade.He draped himself too casually on the bench across the table from me. He had the same eager, familiar look in his eyes as dozens of young black guys have had as they set out to pick and probe for the criminal treasures they believe are buried inside my skull.Trying to stiff-arm him away from the position before he reached for it, I said: “you’ve got a freak machine there. What’ve you done, made foreman at the aircraft plant and decided to settle down with that brown skinned vision?”A pained look came over his face, as if I had clumsily ripped the lace of his lavender see-through shirt. He snorted and leaned back arrogantly and cracked, “Ice! You aint heard? I cut loose from that gig. I’m macking and that vision is humping for me. I’m gonna split to the track in the big fast Windy in a few days and I want to run down the joints where I can cut into the boss pimps and get hip to where my girl can get action.”

I said, “So you’ve just turned out and you think your the greatest. You couldn’t be more then nineteen or twenty. What makes you think you’re so qualified to make it on the fast track in Chicago?”

He looked away and exchanged clenched fist salutes with a trio of young guys passing in a burnt-orange spaceship. He leaned towards me and said, ” I memorized the bible you wrote on the whore game, and I’m so pretty the whores cream their panties when I come on the scene. I’ll have every nigger in Chicago scared the pretty Eli is gonna steal his whore. All the ones I can’t steal, I’ll shake down gorilla-style. And Ice, I can run a bitch up the wall with my boss dick. I know the game, Ice. I’m qualified. I’m ready for the Windy.”

I sat there silently for a long moment looking at his smooth, unlined face and remembered how my own youth was lost and poisoned long ago in the dope-soaked Chicago underworld. I had seen scores of young black duded with more guts, gab and looks than this boastful guy owned who had been mangled on the fast track.

I fought back the disgust and anger I felt; this young guy had all his life, had everything going for him to make it outside the lousy underworld. Now he was wild to chump off his life. I decided to blast his ass off and maybe, at least, turn him away from the fast track.

I said, “Young brother, you came from a nice family and I like you, so I’m going to tell you like it is. There are young pimps in the Windy twenty times faster and smarter than you who can’t score for grits and greens, and they’re so good-looking their asses would make you a Sunday face.

“You read and memorized Pimp, the story of my life, and you didn’t get you coat pulled that pimping is for dudes who are suckers for jail cells and smack dealers? You think pimping is a beauty contest? You think you can fuck? There are johns, tricks in the streets that can lay your whore and suck her cunt so good she’ll have convulsions with diarrhea! You take that cream puff young broad to the city and in six weeks some slicker will pump her rotten with H, and you’ll be flat-ass busted waiting for your folks to send you the fare back home. I wouldn’t even lay a two-bit bet you wont wind up a puddle of shit and blood in some alley.”

I rose from the table and left him with his mouth ajar. He didn’t split to the fast track because I run into him now and then and he always turns his eyes away. An acquaintance of his told me a young Italian customer stole the brown skin vision from the dude and he went back to the aircraft gig. I like to believe that my tongue-lashing had some part in maybe saving the young black for something more rewarding that pimping.

Iceberg Slim died in 1992 at the age of 73.One reviewer for The Observer wrote:
“There is no moralizing bullshit, no romanticized illusions, few redeeming factors – just straight-up sawn-off shotgun blasts from the pen of the “King of the Ghetto”
BibliographyNon FictionPimp: The Story of My Life (1967)
The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim (1971)FictionTrick Baby: The Story of a White Negro(1967)
Mama Black Widow: A Story of the South’s Black Underworld (1969)
Long White Con: The Biggest Score in His Life! (1977) – The sequel to Trick Baby
Death Wish: A Story of The Mafia (1977)
Doom Fox (written in 1978, but not published until October of 1998, might be a version of the unpublished The Game for Squares)Collection
Airtight Willie and Me: The Story of Six Incredible Players (1979)What follows is a closer look at Beck’s masterpiece Pimp and also his collection of non-fiction pieces The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim.Pimp is the true story of his life as Chicago’s most successful ‘mack’ during the 1940’s and 1950’s. It was during his final stretch of jail that he realized at 43 that he was getting too old to pimp any longer, he would later write:
I got out of it because I was old. I did not want to be teased, tormented and brutalized by young whores.”
It was on a sales call that he met a college professor who, upon hearing that Beck had been a pimp, wanted to hear his story. After beginning to tape some interviews Beck realized that he was going to get screwed by the contract so he decided to bypass the professor and tell his own tale.
Pimp is by turns a philosophical and historical treatise that offers as complete an account as has ever been written of that trade.He wrote Pimp in three months. Upon its release it was lumped in with the other revolutionary black writings of the time but its harsh realties and unflinching portrayal that came from experience made this grouping seem tenuous at times.Its classic opening line sets the tone for the rest of the book:
“‘Dawn was breaking as the big Hog scooted through the streets. My five whores were chattering like Magpies. I smelt the stink that only a street whore has after a long and busy night. The inside of my nose was raw. It happens when you’re a pig for cocaine.My nose was on fire and the stink of those whores and the gangster they were smoking seemed like invisible knives scraping to the root of my brain. I was in an evil, dangerous mood despite that pile of scratch crammed into the glove compartment.”
Later on we find this brief description “A pimp is the loneliest bastard on Earth. He’s gotta know his whores. He can’t let them know him. He’s gotta be God all the way.”Beck also included a glossary in the back of the book with such terms as:
  • bottom woman: pimp’s main woman, his foundation
  • breaking luck: a whore’s first trick of a working day
  • chili pimp: small-time, one whore pimp
  • jasper: lesbian
  • macking: pimping
  • square up: to get out of the life
  • to pull someone’s coat: to inform and teach
Pimp would ultimately prove to be a successful book whose path to success would also prove to be the model for similar successes by authors who would come to be influenced by Beck’s true to life books.Over time the book would be translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and Greek.The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim is a collection of essays. In a career that saw many powerful works this in many ways is the most powerful of them all. Beck’s books were always coated with the thinnest possible layer of fiction but even that is stripped away here. This is Beck, writing as Beck and the results are harrowing.
I want to say at the outset that I have become ill, insane as an inmate of a torture chamber behind America’s fake facade of justice and democracy. But I am not as ill as I was, and I am getting better all the time. And also, I want to make clear that my reason for starting these notes at a point of personal anguish and suffering is that these experiences marked the end of a corrupt pimp life and were the prelude to a still mauled, but constructive new life. I am not “playing the con” for sympathy.
Here is a reflection on time spent in prison:
“Again for the thousandth time I see and hear the likeable little black con in the steel box next to mine, my only buddy, suddenly chanting freaky lyrics of a crazy frightening song about how God is double-crossing cocksucker, and how he is going to sodomize and murder his crippled bitch mama.”
Donald Goines

Donald Goines was born in 1937 in Detroit, where the majority of his books would take place. His body of work forms the bed-rocked foundation for the modern street book as its known today.

Greg Goode of The University of Rochester wrote that:

“In his five-year literary career, Donald Goines provided perhaps the most sustained, multifaceted, realistic fictional picture ever created by one author of the lives, choices and frustrations of underworld ghetto blacks. Almost single-handedly, Goines established the conventions and the popular momentum for a new fictional genre, which could be called ghetto realism.”
Goines was addicted to heroin at various points in his life. In a 2004 article his sister, Joan, said “He didn’t control the habit. The habit controlled him.”He stole his sister’s birth certificate to join the military at an early age. He was stationed in Japan during the Korean war and received an honorable discharge at the age of 17.

He spent time in jail for offenses that ranged from bootlegging to armed robbery. During his final bit he discovered the books of Iceberg Slim. He wrote his first novel, Whoreson, and sent the manuscript to Iceberg Slims publisher, Holloway House, while still in prison. Upon his release he was given a contract for Whoreson. It seems that Holloway House issued their contracts on a book-by-book basis and since Goines needed to feed his growing heroin habit he , in true Herculean pulp fashion, wrote and published 16 novels in a five-year period. From start to completion he only needed 6 weeks to finish a book.

In 1974 Goines and his wife were shot to death in Detroit, he was 37 years old. To date the murder of Goines and his wife is a cold case. Goines popularity continues unabated to this day.

Never Die Alone was recently modernized for the big screen as a movie starring DMX.

Michael Covino of The Village Voice wrote the following:

“All those other [other black] writers, no matter how well they dealt with black experience, appealed largely to an educated, middle-class, largely white readership. They brought news of one place to the residents of another. Goines’ novels, on the other hand, are written from ground zero. They are almost unbearable. It is not the educated voice of a writer who has, so to speak, risen above his background, it is the voice of the ghetto itself.”
Bibliography Dopefiend (1971)
Whoreson (1972)
Black Gangster (1972)
Black Girl Lost (1973)
Street Players (1973)
White Mans Justice, Black Mans Grief (1973)
Daddy Cool (1974)
Eldorado Red (1974)
Swamp Man (1974)
Never Die Alone (1974)
Crime Partners (1974)
Cry Revenge (1974)
Death List (1974)
Kenyatta’s Escape (1974)
Kenyatta’s Last Hit (1975)
Inner City Hoodlum (1975)Not all Goines books are created equal. When taken as a whole the catalogue of Goines is a hit or miss affair largely due to the pace that he kept. His plots and characters could be thin at times but his best works are fully realized and thrilling reads. I’ll take a closer look at two of his strongest, Daddy Cool and Whoreson.
Daddy Cool is Goines’ masterpiece, it is also the one book of his that is likely to have been read, if at all, by crime fiction fans. The story simply is that of a hit man named Daddy Cool whose daughter gets turned out by a local pimp and his attempts to reconcile this situation when it starts to affect his work.Daddy Cool is a classic noir story and a classic piece of crime fiction. It also holds a unique place in that the story was turned into a graphic novel in 1984.The following is the opening of Daddy Cool followed by a lengthier excerpt:
Larry Jackson, better known as “Daddy Cool”, stopped on the litter-filled street in the town of Flint, Michigan. His prey, a slim, brown-complexioned man, walked briskly ahead. He was unaware that he was being followed by one of the deadliest killers the earth had ever spawned.Taking his time, Daddy Cool removed a cigarette pack and lit up a Pall Mall. He wasn’t in a hurry. He knew the frightened man in front of him was as good as dead. Whenever the man glanced back over his shoulder he saw nothing moving on the dark side of the street.”

“Daddy cool noticed the man he was following turn the corner and start walking faster. There was no better time than now to make the hit. As long as the man stayed on these back streets it would be perfect. He only had to catch up with the man without arousing his suspicions. Daddy Cool started to lengthen his stride until he was almost running.William had a definite goal. A long time friend stayed somewhere in the next block, but over the years he had forgotten just where the house was. In his haste to leave Detroit, he had left his address book on the dining-room table, so it was useless to him now. He slowed down, knowing that he would recognize the house when he saw it. It was on Newal Street, that he was sure of. It shouldn’t be too hard to find in the coming darkness.Like a hunted animal, Billings’ nerves were sharpened to a peak. Glancing back over his shoulder, he noticed a tall man coming around the corner. His first reaction was one of alarm. His senses, alert to possible danger, had detected the presence of someone or something in the immediate vicinity. As a shiver of fear ran down his spine, he ridiculed himself for being frightened of his own shadow. There was no need for him to worry about someone picking up his trail. Not this soon anyway.Disregarding the warning alarm that went off inside his head, he slowed his pace so that he could see the old shabby houses better. The neighborhood had once been attractive, with the large rambling homes built back in the early twenties. But now, they were crumbling. Most of them needed at least a paint job. Where there had once been rain gutters, there was now only rusted-out packs of tin, ready to collapse at the first burst of rain.

William cursed under his breath. He wondered if in his early haste he might have made a wrong turn. It was possible. It had been years since he’d been up this way, and it was easy for him to get turned around. He slowed his walk down until he was almost standing still. Idly he listened to the foot steps of the man who had turned down the same street as he did. Unable to control himself, William turned completely around and glanced at the tall, somberly dressed man coming toward him. He let out a sigh as he realized that he had been holding his breath. He noticed that the man coming toward him was middle-aged. Probably some family man, he reasoned, hurrying home from work. He almost laughed out loud as he reflected on what a hired killer would look like. He was sure of one thing, a hit man wouldn’t be as old as the man coming toward him. In his mind, William pictured the hit man sent out after him as a wild young man, probably in his early twenties. A man in a hurry to make a name for himself. One who didn’t possess to high an intelligence, that being the reason he would have become a professional killer. It didn’t take any brains to pull the trigger on a gun, William reasoned. But a smart man would stay away from such an occupation. One mistake and a hit man’s life was finished.

Suddenly William decided that he was definitely going the wrong way. He whirled around on his heels swiftly. The tall, light-complexioned man coming near him stopped suddenly. For a brief moment William hesitated, thinking he saw fear on the man’s face. The dumb punk-ass bastard, William coldly reflected. If the sorry motherfucker only new how much cash William had in the briefcase he carried, the poor bastard wouldn’t be frightened by William’s sudden turn.

“Don’t worry, old chap,” William said loudly so that the other man wouldn’t fear him. “I’m just lost, that’s all. These damn streets all look alike at night.”

The tall, dark-clothed man had hesitated briefly; now he came forward quickly. He spoke softly. “Yeah, mister, you did give me a fright for just a minute. You know,” he continued, “you can’t trust these dark streets at night. Some of these dope fiends will do anything for a ten-dollar bill.”

William laughed lightly, then smiled. He watched the tall man reach back behind his collar. Suddenly the smile froze on his face as the evening moonlight sparkled brightly off the keen-edged knife that was twitching in the man’s hand.

Without thinking, William held out his hand. “Wait a minute,” he cried out in fear. “If it’s money you want, I’ll give you all mine.” Even in his fright, William tried to hold onto the twenty-five thousand dollars he had in his briefcase. He reached for the wallet in his rear pocket. He never reached it.

With a flash, the tall man dressed in black threw his knife. The motion was so smooth and quick that the knife became only a blur. The knife seemed to turn in the air once or twice, then became imbedded in William’s small chest. It happened so suddenly that William never made a sound. The force of the blow staggered him. He remained on his feet for a brief instant while the knife protruded from his body.”

Another of Goines’ more popular books is Whoreson. It tells the story of a trick baby who grows up to become the greatest pimp of them all. The following is an excerpt from Whoreson:

From what I have been told it is easy to imagine the cold, bleak day when I was born into this world. It was December 10, 1940, and snow had been falling continuously in Detroit all that day. The cars moved slowly up and down Hastings street, turning the white flakes into slippery slush. Whenever a car stopped in the middle of the street, a prostitute would get out of it or a whore would dart from one of the darkened doorways and get into the car.Jessie, a tall black woman with high, narrow cheekbones, stepped from a trick’s car holding her stomach. Her dark piercing eyes were flashing with anger. She began cursing the driver, using the vilest language imaginable about his parents and the nature of his birth. The driver, blushing with shame, drove away, leaving her behind in the falling snow. Slush from the spinning tires spattered her as she held onto a parked car for support. She unconsciously rubber her hand across her face to wipe away the tears that mingled with the snowflakes.Two prostitutes standing across the street in the Silver-line doorway, an old dilapidated bar that catered to hustling girls, watched her curiously.Before she could move, another car stopped behind her. She turned and stared at the white face leering over the steering wheel. The driver noticed as she turned that her stomach was exceptionally large. Guessing her condition, he drove on. She stood holding her stomach and watching the car move down the street until it stopped near a group of women in front of a bar. She started to move towards the sidewalk, but her legs gave out on her, and she fell into the slush in the street.

From the darkened doorways, prostitutes of various complexions ran to the stricken woman’s aid. Before, where there had been closed windows, there now appeared heads of different shapes and sizes.

“Bring that crazy whore up here, a stout woman yelled from a second-story window. While four women half carried and half dragged Jessie up the stairs, a young girl, still in her teens, yelled to the women in the window, I think she goin’ have that damn baby, Big Mama.”

The large woman in the window looked down at the girl, amused. “Its about time she had it, gal. Seems she been sticking out for a whole year.” Big Mama started to close the window, then added, “You run down the street and get that nigger doctor, gal, and don’t stop for no tricks.”

III. Gone, Forgotten and Waiting for Discovery – Robert Deane Pharr & Clarence Cooper Jr.Given the at least small measure of success that Himes, Iceberg Slim and Goines have had within the crime fiction community I wanted to isolate two authors that I think are just begging to be discovered. Clarence Cooper Jr.

Robert Deane Pharr

Robert Deane Pharr was born in 1916 in Richmond, Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Union College in 1937. For 22 years he traveled up and down the east coast working as a waiter at upscale hotels and private clubs.

In 1969 at the age of 53 Pharr published his first novel called The Book of Numbers. The favorable critical attention that his first novel would generate wouldn’t be duplicated by his follow up novels. But this lack of attention didn’t deter Pharr, he continued to write, publishing 4 more novels before retiring in 1978, after the publication of Giveadamn Brown, to upstate New York. He died in 1989 at the age of 75.

Pharr once said:

I would let white people look at the black man as he lives when the white man isn’t looking or listening.’

A lot of the writers talked about here deserve wider attention within the confines of their best work. Take a look at someone like Goines for example: he wrote at such a blistering pace that his works are hit or miss. Goines clearly has some books that are better then others. But Pharr was a literary original whose iconoclastic entire body of work is waiting patiently for readers to discover it.

Now to be fair in providing a balanced assessment of his work, Pharr’s biggest flaw as a writer is that his books can be a little long. They could have benefited from having their fat trimmed. This observation goes a long way to show why his last book, Giveadamn Brown, is his best. Giveadamn Brown retains all of the power of the earlier books but is much leaner and meaner in the process.

Often when the crime novels of Walter Mosley are discussed there is made mention of his work carrying on the legacy of Chester Himes. Almost as if it started with Himes, skipped a couple of decades, then ended with Mosley. These two writers are often the only blips to appear on the radar screen of mystery/crime fiction readers, if those blips appear at all.

This thin assessment isn’t the fault of either Himes or Mosley, both are deserving of the attention that their works receive and much more.

But this assessment does overlook all the other writers that came before Himes and perhaps more importantly those that came before Mosley. Especially those, such as Pharr that carried on traditions started by Himes, that others haven’t. For example Pharr’s Giveadamn Brown clearly is carrying on the absurdist tradition, if not ramping it up a few degrees, that was started by Himes in his Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series.

Bibliography

Book of Numbers (1969)
S.R.O (1971)
The Soul Murder Case (1975)
The Welfare Bitch (1976)
Giveadamn Brown (1978)

The following is an excerpt from Pharr’s masterpiece Giveadamn Brown:

Perhaps it’s best to explain the man’s name. He was christened Lawrence Brown. But the day Lawrence made eighteen, he got drunk and was arrested. The next morning the judge droned, ‘Five days.’

‘I don’t give a damn,’ Lawrence laughed.

‘Well, let’s make it ten and see if you do.’

‘I still don’t give a damn.’

After the judge got up to fifteen and Lawrence still didn’t give a damn, the judge decided the boy hadn’t sobered up. Since the judge secretly and hopelessly lusted for Lawrence’s sixteen-year-old cousin who cleaned his law office, the man sighed and motioned for the sheriff to take the boy back to his cell until he was sober.

But from that day on, Lawrence Brown became a famous man in the town of Wiggins, Florida. At first all the townspeople – black, that is – called him I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn Brown. Then it was shortened to Giveadamn. Few people called him anything else as long as he lived.

His disposition rode up with him to New York. When he opened his tiny fix-it shop on Lenox Avenue in Harlem and was immediately robbed into financial disaster, he said cheerfully, ‘I don’t give a damn.’

He knew how to wait on tables. His father was the headwaiter in the only hotel in Wiggins . . . as well as being a preacher. Giveadamn could always find a job, so he went out to Sheepshead Bay to the great Lundy’s Restaurant and got himself hired as a waiter. He labored and prospered enough to reopen his shop, and this time named it Brown’s Shop of the Second Coming, because he said he gave new life to long-dead appliances.

Giveadamn was almost six feet tall but weighed only one hundred and fifty pounds. He was more the color of asbestos than just plain black. His mouth was an open book. His lips were much too large to be puckered or sucked in. There was nothing to do but let them hang natural, like the truth.

He had been in New York a little over a year when he sat on a bench one morning in a neighborhood playground in Harlem and watched twelve Mercedes and Lincoln Continentals and Jaguars pull up and park. He saw a black teen-age boy emerge from each one and head out on the playground’s basketball court. There he watched them lay down bets on the shots they tossed up to the basket from the foul line. The odds ranged anywhere from five-to-one to eight-to-one.

He could see they weren’t betting with dimes and quarters. He thought, those could even be ten-dollar bills changing hands, and he went away from the playground in wonder. His new girl friend, Margo, who had grown up wild on the streets of Harlem, was no help when he told her what he’d seen, not any help in the kind of way he wanted.

‘They’re the kids,’ Margo said. ‘The kids the pushers began to use a few years ago. You know. Things got real tough back there for a time. The fuzz was shaking down every man and woman who walked along Eighth Avenue and everywhere else. So the smart pushers started using seven, eight, nine-year-old boys to deliver. They were good. They began to let the kids sell.

‘Shit, Giveadamn. Those kids became couriers for the big boys. Like the cops were looking for some real smooth dude in a big shiny hog to be making the five- and six-kilo deliveries. But it was children on bicycles making them million-dollar connections. More likely they was shooting hundred-dollar baskets.’

‘Margo, those boys are all over sixteen. You mean they been dealing in heroin in one way or another for as much as eight years?’

She nodded. ‘A lot got hooked. A lot died. But the cool ones got so much money and connections now you can’t guess them at all.’ She paused and grew solemn, righteous. ‘But they need money! You realize how much money a fourteen-year-old black boy got to pay some adult to go downtown and buy him a ten-, twelve-thousand-dollar automobile! Thousands! How much you think them kids have to spread around before they can get themselves a boss apartment down on the East Side?’

Giveadamn swore he would never return to watch those children again, but he did, seven more times, seven days running.

The first time he’d seen it he hadn’t believed it. Nothing about it made sense. Every morning Giveadamn returned to the scene of the impossible to watch the impossible. As always, it was a little after six o’clock. All the muggers had made their pocket money and were off the scene. It was the safest time of day in Harlem, the police all drunk by then, sleeping it off somewhere until time to go in and check out. Anyone could step into the middle of the street and shoot around for fifteen minutes with a machine gun, and nobody would even know it, much less care.

Sometimes he’d watch as many as twenty boys. They always came singly on their own wheels. Always in the big, new, gleaming cars. They double-parked them on the street and got out and walked onto the basketball court. They were like children with too much money, too worldly to spend it on candy or skateboards. Smart enough to know they had too much money, but not smart enough to know what to do with it. Nobody, Giveadamn decided, is that smart.

But these boys were not arrogant. They were thoughtful if not kind; if one of them stumbled and fell, another rushed over to the fallen boy with real concern. And they were soft-spoken. Not profane, at least not unduly so. Especially when they missed a basket.

As he watched, he realized he longed for something missing in his own life, perhaps being a winner, yet remaining quiet and soft-spoken and decent to everyone around him. With a few thousand dollars in his pocket, he might just do the same thing these kids did every morning soon after sunrise. But he’d never had more money than he needed, so he didn’t know what he’d do.

On the sixth morning he sat watching as the last of the youths drove up and parked. The boy got out, went to the trunk of his long white Continental and got out basketball shoes and a basketball. After putting on his sneakers, he dropped his dress shoes in the trunk and made sure it was locked.

The boy then dribbled the ball all the way across the court to where the others were waiting. Once at the foul line, he began practicing free throws.

‘Okay,’ he said, `are we all ready?’

Giveadamn could hear him clearly.

‘You ready? I got my eye. Who’s in on this first one?’

All of the boys threw bills down on a pile and the boy at the foul line went over, knelt, and from a roll of bills in his pocket covered all their bets. Only one of the boys didn’t bet. He said, `Junior, you’re warmed up, right? Since you already got your eye, how about betting me three?’

The boy called Junior smiled. It was a very pleasant smile. He might have been the best-looking of all the boys, but it was a pretty close thing to judge. ‘You put them down. I’ll cover them.’ It was done.

He went back to the foul line, studied the basket and from a one-handed push, the ball arced up and swished through the net.

The group jeered, groaned and applauded in a kind of chorus. Junior picked up the money. And then it was the next boy’s turn to stand at the foul line.

The next morning an older boy, a young man of Giveadamn’s age, joined them and Giveadamn could sense bad vibrations. Nothing evident. It was more that the thing was no longer just a game.

When the time came for the newcomer to shoot, he didn’t want money left on the ground and didn’t want any of them to hold it. He’d pay up later, he said. The kids all seemed to start walking in circles, then one of them, Junior, went over to Giveadamn and asked would he hold the money. Giveadamn took it. It was no big thing. If the shooter made his shot, he took all. If he didn’t, Giveadamn knew these kids well enough by now to know they’d divide their winnings fairly.

It was as the boys walked away and back onto the court that Giveadamn glanced down at the money in his hand. He began to tremble. They were all old one-thousand-dollar bills. He thought about dropping the money and hauling ass, but he wasn’t that good a runner. So he sat and trembled while the new boy on the court put six straight shots through the basket.

Then he walked over to Giveadamn, took the money from his hand, counted it carefully and shoved one of the bills into Giveadamn’s shirt pocket. ‘Buy yourself a drink,’ he said.

Before noon, Giveadamn, riding a hunch, bought himself one thousand dollars’ worth of lottery tickets. He had the feeling it was another big day in his life, like the day he’d earned his nickname and made every man, woman and child in Wiggins an admirer and friend.

Margo thought differently. She smiled brokenly. ‘So you think you seen money used like toilet paper. Listen, you ever hear of the C.C. Riders? You ever hear of the Cocaine Club? Well, it’s all the same dudes. And what dudes! They took the shabbiest tenement in 115th Street and gutted it. I mean they tore out everything except the dirty old stinking front of the building, and inside they got the finest club money can buy.

‘It costs ten thousand to join. The dues is maybe a thousand a month, and for your one lousy grand all you get is a key to the front door. And one hell of a wake and funeral when you get wasted.’ She paused. ‘Or maybe a nice little taste every week . . . if you go to prison.’

‘I don’t believe it,’ Giveadamn said softly. ‘I don’t want to believe no more about this so-called ghetto called Harlem.’

‘Maybe you shouldn’t. Like the truth is that the C.C. Riders are only punks for real. They’re dealers. But they are only the middlemen. Like the last guys the narco goes through before it hits the street. They’re big, but nothing like the Doll Baby or Studs Thompson or Jimmy Adams. ‘But the C.C. Riders are freaky studs for power. They’re mean as hell. Crazy, too. They mostly ride motorcycles. Like one time one got killed on his bike. The crazy mother-fuckers tried to bury his motorcycle with him, and when the undertaker started a hassle they kicked the living shit outa him and threw him in the hole on top of the coffin. It was damned near a riot out there on Staten Island. The Cocaine Club is big, rich and crazy as well, Giveadamn. You want to know how crazy this world can get, you go join ’em. After all, you got a hundred grand coming from them tickets you bought . . . you hope.’

She paused and her lips curled even more. ‘I forgot,’ she said apologetically, ‘you can’t join. Everybody who’s eligible has first got to do time in Attica.’

It took Margo a while to forgive Giveadamn for putting all that money on a bunch of lottery tickets, as long as it took to learn two of his tickets were going to be in the final drawing. Maybe, she decided, he was a walking miracle.

Clarence Cooper Jr.

Clarence Cooper Jr. was born in Detroit in 1942. In the 1950’s he was an editor for The Chicago Messenger. It was during this time that he started using heroin. His addiction would run rampant throughout the rest of his life isolating him from those who were close to him. Cooper died in 1978 of an overdose.

Over the years we have seen other heroin heroes find a certain level of fame for books that are taken directly from their experiences. Some have even been able to parlay that success into literary careers. Authors like Jim Carroll, William Burroughs & Nelson Algren come to mind. But to date Cooper remains an unknown, his works failing to even generate the smallest measure of attention.

He wrote 7 very intense novels, any of which deserve to be tracked down and read but if I were to make a recommendation I would say that Cooper’s The Farm and The Scene are his best works.

Bibliography:

The Syndicate (original publication date unknown)
The Scene (1960)
The Dark Messenger (1962)
Yet Princes Follow (1963)
Weed (1963)
Not We Many (original publication date unknown)
The Farm (1968)

The following is an excerpt from The Scene:

“All the other nights, liquor had helped him forget his wife Margaret and her cancer. It had helped him forget his needlessly extravagant life in the suburbs. It helped him forget Denise, his mindless daughter in a nursing home, a living testimonial to his carelessness during the First World War, in France.

Here in the sanctuary of his private den, his joints ached; the liquor helped some, but it couldn’t reach the deeper ache that spread throughout his body.

He began to cry, and the tears dropped unevenly in his glass of whiskey, on the silken greenness of his smoking jacket. The sob stretched long and horrible form his throat, and his coward’s body crumpled with the lamentation. The police captain fell to the floor, crying like a child…

A little child he was, running down a country road with the wild smell of living things, with a butterfly lilting overhead, when a dog rushed at him like an angry bull and attacked him, his little hands, his little legs…

Unconsciously, he felt his hands and legs, but they had healed.

How could he tell the dog he did not mean to do whatever it was that had angered him? How could he tell the dog?

The sobs had ceased, and the ridiculousness of lying full length on the floor came to him. In an instant, everything came to him, but he forced it back. He could not think of it! It was all too terrible!

But he had to do something.

What to do?

What to tell the goddamn dog?

What could he do tomorrow, the next day, the day after? What could he say to Margaret, dying in the hospital?

He began to cry again. Oh God, have pity! Make it all a dream. Make everything go away so I won’t have to wake up and see it tomorrow. Please, God, you could do it if you wanted to. I’ve been a good husband; I never whored around; I always went every Sunday to see Denise; and I went to church, too, God.

What can I do? What can I do?

His coward’s hands touched the cowardly face, and the audacity of the thought relieved him of some stigma.

No…

That’s not something you do right off. You’ve got to have time, days. You can’t just think about it and then do it.

But there was the thought of tomorrow.

Please, God! Can’t I do something else? Can’t I get by some other way? You could help me!

He could not escape to the past. His unsteady legs took him to the desk. He opened the drawer, and saw the long snout of his service revolver.

No, I can’t! he thought, shrinking away from it. I’ve got to have a drink first.

He had a drink, two, then three, but it was no use; his mind was numb.

Back at the desk, his hand faltered over the cold steel.

But you’ve got to! After tomorrow, you’ll be dead anyway. But it’ll hurt. It’ll cave a little hole in my skull; the bullet’ll rip through my brain, it’ll tear it loose; the blood and brains and bone will gush out the other side. It’s horrible, and it’ll hurt like hell. But it’ll hurt worse tomorrow.

He leaned on the desk to steady himself.

I can’t do it! I can’t kill myself! But you must! Not this way! Maybe if I hung myself…

Like all potential suicides, he examined the means desperately, searching for the one that would hurt least. Then his eyes narrowed.

Upstairs…Margaret had some of her medication left after the last operation. Just take them orally.

He stumbled to the wide doors of the room and flung them open. If he was going to do it, he had to hurry.

The neat expensive furnishings got in his way. He knocked over a chair in the hall. On the stairs he slipped. Upstairs, he rummaged through the drawers in his wife’s bedroom.

Where is it?

He was glad that his hasty search did not reveal what he was looking for at once. Then he saw the box under a sheaf of letters.

There it is. Now open it. I can’t kill myself! Open it. You must. It won’t hurt.

He slid the box open with his nervous fingers. Ten tablets.

That should be enough. They’re half-grain tablets; to help her sleep. He read the label: one tablet on retiring. To be used only on doctor’s prescription. Take them out. Put them in your hand. Put them in you mouth. Now swallow them.

The white discs caught in his throat, and it was minutes before the last one passed down. Almost immediately he felt the pins and needles at his brain, and was terrified.

The sensation intensified, then he felt a warmth envelop him, and he ceased to care. Now he had no fears about tomorrow.

He floated on the mild feeling, amazed that it could feel so good to die. In his fog, he wondered if the dosage would be enough.

The stupor increased and he felt safer, knowing that soon he would be dead.

He did not know that his wife Margaret had purposely mislabeled the medicine box, that he had just taken five grains of soluble morphine sulphate.

Though he had been involved with narcotics for years, never before had he tasted the strangeness of heroin–the principal ingredient in Margaret’s pills, which were not sleeping tablets but an opium derivative.”

IV. The Best of the Rest

This section will highlight other books and authors that represent some of the best that the genre has to offer.

Roland Jefferson

Roland Jefferson was born in Washington, D.C. in 1939 before moving to California at an early age. He served in the U.S. Air force and attended the University of Southern California. He received his medical degree from Howard University. Jefferson has maintained a lifelong interest in writing. His body of work includes reviews, academic articles, screenplays and 5 novels.

Roland Jefferson is currently semi-retired from his private practice as a forensic psychiatrist in Los Angeles.

Bibliography
The School On 103rd Street (1976)
A Card for the Players (1970)
559 to Damascus (1985)
Damaged Goods (2005)
One Night Stand (2006)

In an attempt to add another dimension to this piece I made an effort to track down and talk to some of these authors. I made calls, did research and sent e-mails but for some of these men the trail has been cold for years. I hit a few dead ends but I am pleased to announce that some of my efforts did pay off.

I was able to speak with Roland Jefferson, author of the classic novel, The School on 103rd Street, and he was gracious enough to offer his thoughts on the topic of Black Crime Fiction writers.

Brian Lindenmuth – Why do you think that black crime fiction writers have never really been able to gain a measure of recognition within the mystery/crime fiction community? Is it because they have a tendency to be considered a type of “social” fiction”?

Roland Jefferson – I don’t know that I would agree with the premise that black writers are typecast as social fiction writers. That probably comes out of the kind of hard core fiction written by the late Donald Goines and carried on today in the form of so-called ‘Street Lit’ books by black authors that focus only on the oppressed black inner-city criminal sub-culture and the kinds of skills that some choose in order to survive.

So my most immediate thought is that black crime fiction writers may write with an ‘ethnic’ perspective that the overall reading public (white) cannot or does not identify with. Case in point: Elmore Leonard writes crime stories about dysfunctional white criminal characters with a few black criminal characters thrown in. But it is always from the white criminal’s point of view. Never from the black character’s point of view. And the issue of black/white interaction is almost always handled from a white persepctive. Black author Richard Wright wrote Native Son from the black character’s Bigger Thomas’s point of view. But the theme was about a black man who killed a white girl, so the vast white readership could easily identify with their own stereotypical fears of black men.

Of course Walter Mosely’s iconic Easy Rawlins series broke through that barrier because he told the story from the point of view of an already disenfranchised black man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. I suspect had he invested his Easy Rawlins character with the kind of psychopathic lethality of Mouse, he would still be largely unknown. So too did Gary Phillips’ Ivan Monk series and Robert Greer’s C.J Floyd series break through the barrier, but they are not yet the household name of Walter Mosely.

Its really a matter of being taken seriously by a reading public that can identify with the black perspective. It is also important to recognize that being taken seriously by a prominant reviewer and/or respected celebrity doesn’t hurt (Bill Clinton propelled Walter Mosely into the stratosphere). Which is why every writer in the country, black or white, tries to get on Oprah.

Brian Lindenmuth – I suppose that some of the themes that black novelists address could be difficult for white readers to relate to, such as assimilation and separatism. But is the theme of alienation, for example, really much different when addressed by Chester Himes as opposed to David Goodis?

Roland Jefferson – Alienation and assimilation are difficult for a mass readership to grasp unless it is addressed in a style or context that the readership identifies with. It also depends of whose alienation or assimilation one is writing about. Black alienation borne out of economic poverty and centuries old racial victimization will be a different experience from alienation in white, asian or hispanic cultures. And yet there are similarities that a skilled writer needs to be able to make the story relevant to the mass readership. By way of example, black criminal fiction is vastly different from Italian criminal fiction that is iconic in its characterization of the Mafia.

Brian Lindenmuth – What, if anything, would you like to have seen happen differently with your writing career?

Roland Jefferson – I would like to have been taken seriously as a novelist. To have been able to get the kinds of reviews from prestigious magazines and literary publications that would have identified me as a writer with credibility. Also, I would like to have seen some of my novels translated to the movie screen.

Brian Lindenmuth – Are you fully retired now from your private practice as a forensic psychiatrist?

Roland Jefferson – At the present time I am semi-retired as a forensic psychiatrist. I have cut back my schedule and only see patients on a limited basis.

Brian Lindenmuth – Did you find it hard to juggle both careers?

Roland Jefferson – The major problem with juggling two careers is time management. How much time do you give to writing verses how much time do you give to your patients. Both are enjoyable. So my way of managing time was to be selfish with it. When I’m writing I don’t want to be disturbed. Not by anything or anyone, patient or family member. The same with professional treatment of a patient. I don’t want to be disturbed by anyone…telephone call, mail delivery or a knock on the door by someone asking for directions.

Brian Lindenmuth – Your books cover a variety of genres. In 1985 your book 559 to Damascus was published, which deals directly with issues that are prevalent in today’s society like terrorism and Islamic extremism. What prompted you to write it when you did? What if anything has changed in the last 20 years?

Roland Jefferson – 559 To Damascus is only the second political novel I’ve written. The School On 103rd Street being the first. In 1985 I thought the news coming out of the middle east was a harginger of things to come…that at some point we would face the very real possibility of nuclear terrorism. Of couse back then I couldn’t get the book reviewed by anybody, black or white. What has changed in the past 20 years is the fact that my prediction is far more realistic than even I had imagined.

Brian Lindenmuth – Lastly, what are you working on now?

Roland Jefferson – I am working on several books at this time. All in the early stages of their development. A black period romance story piece set in the 1960’s on the eve of the Viet Nam conflict; A contemporary white male/black female crime drama; A contemporary black middle-class melo-drama; A contemporary forensic crime drama about a serial killer, as well as several other story ideas not yet consolidated.

The following is an excerpt from The School on 103rd Street:

As they approached the clump of trees, Buddy once again looked back over his shoulder to see if anyone else was there. The streets were still quiet, the sidewalks empty. “Rain sho’ does keep niggers inside, even on Sunday.”

“Didn’t keep Jimmie inside.” Leon’s voice was cynical. He repeated himself again. “Didn’t keep him inside at all, an’ this was one mornin’ that he didn’t need to leave his house!”

Buddy was still looking over his shoulder when he realized what Leon had said. He turned back toward Leon, who by this time had stopped in his tracks. “What’s wrong wif you, nigger? One minute you say he ain’t gonna show up, and then the next you claim the motherfucker should stay in his house. I sure as hell wish you’d get your shit together — what’s wrong?” Sensing that his remarks may have been premature, he turned toward the clump of trees where Leon was staring.

It was then that he saw what had prompted Leon to speak. They were at the edge of the tree cluster, and from where they were standing they had a panoramic view of the entire area. The still, lifeless form that lay between two trees on the far side sent a chill up Buddy’s back. “What is it, a dog?” It was a stupid question and he knew it, but it was the only way he could keep from getting sick at the stomach, since he already knew what and who the form was.

“Shit — dog, my ass!” Leon still maintained his supercool, aloof bravado when he talked, but it wasn’t quite enough to conceal the fact he was scared. “That motherfucker is dead! Someone offed him real good,” he said over his shoulder.

“You don’t know if he’s dead. He might just be asleep!” Buddy’s remarks were now sounding ridiculous at this point.

Oh nigger, stop actin’ a fool and talk some sense! I don’t know any nigger dumb ‘nuf to sleep in the rain and mud even if his people put him out the house. ‘Sides any one of us would have taken him in — shit — at least for a night.”

They started across the clearing toward the other side of the tree cluster, almost hesitantly, this time ignoring the mud puddles, their eyes fixed on the form that lay sprawled on the ground before them.

By now there was no doubt in Buddy’s mind that the corpse was Jimmie’s. He was lying face down in the mud, his hands tied behind his back and his mouth covered with tape that had by now come undone because of the rain. Leon knelt down by the body and grabbed the left shoulder, turning the body over on its back.

Jimmie’s eyes had been gouged out.

Herbert Simmons

Herbert Simmons was born in 1931. His first novel, Corner Boy, published in 1957 would go on to win the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. His second book, Man Walking on Eggshells, was published in 1962. It is intended to be the first book in a trilogy.

Herbert Simmons may just be the most enigmatic author of those discussed here. Presumably he is still alive and the remaining books of his intended trilogy are still unpublished. I still hope to see these books published someday.

The following excerpt is from the opening of Corner Boy:

“Lounging under the lampposts on the corners of the city, crowded together in the dark back alleys and gambling dens, you’ll find them. Worn-out men with young faces, scattered through the cities you’ll find them, young men as old as the oldest man in the world.Take eighteen-year-old Jake Adams. Tall, slim and solid in silhouette as the lamppost he leaned against. On his face was a look that could only be describes as casual tenseness. This look came often to his face and was one of the things that made him attractive to women. He held a cigarette loosely between his lips and the smoke spiraled lazily upward to linger in the hazy light from the lamp bulb. Out in the street hurrying cars blared angry horns at foolish pedestrians.
The following excerpt is from the opening of Man Walking on Eggshells.
. . . Sunday was for singing gospels and praising God for heaven, but those other six days they shouted the blues . . .And the blues descended like a dull slate sky wrapping around a mountaintop. All over the country the blues descended, all across the nation as the news got around. Florence Mills, symbol for aspirations among ten million people, was dead.Darkness rolled into St Louis with the news. Darkness drowned the sun in the sky and washed activity from the streets below. The city stabbed at the darkness with feeble glowing streetlights and rivers of silence flowed from the wound.
Charles Perry

Charles Perry was born in 1924. Perry was a successful radio actor in the 1940’s co-starring in the series New World A’ Coming. The 1950’s would see some of his plays produced and in 1962 his only novel, Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, was published.

His novel was gentrified for the big screen in 1997 as Six Ways to Sunday, starring Deborah Harry and Adrien Brody.
Portrait of a Young Man Drowning is a riveting and ultimately tragic book that is possessed of an undeniable power. It should be considered a lost noir classic. It might just be the only book that mixes elements of Jim Thompson and James Joyce.Perry died in 1969 at the age of 45.The following excerpt is the opening paragraph:
“I am myself and myself is myself. I am me. I am here. I am something, I am somebody, I can reach high, high. I can jump, skip, hop, run like the wind. I can holler loud, walk, talk slow or fast. I can fight…Arnie shows me how. I am somebody. Everything is for me. The sun shines on me. The rain wets me. The snow comes for me and I go sledding and sliding, throwing the balls. I am round and quick. I have hands that can take, scratch, hold open, close, hit. I gave feet that can walk, run, jump, kick. To roaches and flies and bedbugs I am a giant. I can pick them up in my fingers. I can squash them or step on them. Nobody hollers.”

Vern E. Smith was born in 1946. He would start his journalism career in college at San Francisco State University as an editor and columnist for the school paper. Newsweek recruited Smith in 1971 where he would remain for the rest of his career, he would be named National Correspondent in 1997. He wrote an article for Newsweek in 1972 entitled Detroit’s Heroin Subculture which would form the basis for his only novel, The Jones Men, published in 1974.The Jones Men can be, at times, a dated book on its surface. The excerpt below will attest to that. But the quality of the writing is very good, probably a beneficiary of Jones’ journalism career.The Jones Men was nominated for an Edgar the year it came out and stands as a prime candidate for entry into the Hard Case lineup if such things could be arranged.

The following excerpt is the opening of The Jones Men:

“For Bennie Lee Sims’ wake, Lennie Jack chose the sky-blue Fleetwood with the chromed-up bumpers and the bar-line running from the trunk to the dash, dispensing six different liquors with chaser.

Joe Red brought the car to a halt in front of Fraser’s Funeral Parlor on Madison Boulevard. He backed it in between a red El Dorado with a diamond-shaped rear window and a pink Lincoln with a leopard-skin rook.

Lennie Jack wore a medium-length Afro and had thick wide sideburns that grew neatly into the ends of a bush moustache drooping over his top lip. He got out of the passenger seat in a manner that favored his left shoulder. He had on a cream-colored suede coat that stopped just below the knee, and a .38 in his waistband.

Joe Red was shorter and thinner and younger than Lennie Jack. He got his nickname for an extremely light complexion and a thick curly bush of reddish brown hair; it spilled from under the wide brimmed black hat cocked low over his right ear. He had on the black leather midi with the red-stitched cape; he had a .45 automatic in his waistband.

They came briskly down the sidewalk and went up the six concrete steps to the entrance of Fraser’s.

An attendant in a somber gray suit and dark tie greeted them at the door.

“We’re here for Bennie Sims,” Joe Red said.

“Come this way,” the attendant said.

He guided them down a narrow hallway past a knot of elderly black women waiting to file into one of the viewing rooms flanking the hall on either side. The hallway reeked of death; the women wept.

They passed three more doors before the attendant led them left at the end of the hall and down a short flight of stairs. A single 60-watt bulb illuminated the lower level. The attendant went past the row of ebony – and silver – colored caskets stacked near the staircase and stopped at a door in the back of the room.

“There’re in there,” he said. He turned and headed back up the stairs. Lennie Jack rapped softly at the door. They stood a few feet back from the doorway to be recognizable in the dim light.”

V. Lost to History – Jerome Dyson Wright & Charlie Avery Harris Poor Black and in Real Trouble (1976) by Jerome Dyson Wright and Macking Gangster (1976) by Charlie Avery HarrisI’ve separated these two authors and their books for a couple of reasons. Their work is no better or no worse that the other authors presented here. But, in many ways, they represent the plight of the black crime fiction writer.I have read the books that these men wrote. I can vouch for their existence. I’ve seen them, held them and read them. But biographical information about these authors and bibliographical information about these books are practically non-existent. I have learned that Wright started writing in prison. That he was a caseworker in the Model Cities Program. That’s it. In the case of Harris I can’t find a single bit of biographical information.

In my research I couldn’t even find a cover shot of my version of Poor Black and in Real Trouble. A quick search on Bookfinder.com for Macking Gangster finds three copies. The cheapest of them is $80.

These books are quickly becoming consigned to history’s dustbin. The footprints that these books left are becoming faint and unclear as time moves on. All of which begs the larger question, ‘How many other books have been lost’?

VI. The tip of the Iceberg (but not necessarily Slim) – Books for further consideration

Ostensibly this article is about Black Crime Fiction Writers but it also speaks to the issue of the presence of black writers in other genres as well. For every one Walter Mosley that breaks through to a wider readership there are dozens of others who dont.

There are a lot of books waiting to be read out there and not just crime fiction but spy novels, histories, steampunk, pulp fiction, horror, PI, police procedurals, post-modern and much more.

Here, for further consideration, is a cross section of some other books and authors that offer a variety of stories that should be read as well.

Gary Phillips – Gary is the man and if your not reading his books then shame on you. He has written two series and multiple standalones as well as for comic books. He has written numerous articles on topics as diverse as the meaning of noir to the retconning of continuity in comic books. I’ve read most of Gary’s novels and he continues to develop and get stronger as a writer.

Bibliography

Perdition USA (1996)
Violent Spring (1997)
Bad Night Is Falling (1998)
The Jook (1999)
High Hand (2000)
Only the Wicked (2000)
Shooter’s Point (2001)
The Perpetrators (2002)
Bangers (2003)

Joe Nazel – Earlier I wrote of Goines that he wrote his novels in true Herculean pulp fashion. While this is true, Goines should be considered a sprinter and if Goines is a sprinter then Joe Nazel ran a marathon. With his recent passing we lost the modern embodiment of a pulp fiction writer. Under multiple pseudonyms he churned out 60 books in his lifetime. His books were all published by Holloway House, the modern paperback grind house.

Not to be contained by any one genre his books and short stories covered the range of crime fiction, men’s action series, erotica, science fiction, horror, biographies, thrillers, histories & romance.

Not everything that Nazel wrote was good but it was always entertaining. His Iceman series is just plain fun and the ultimate in blaxploitation books. His Black Exorcist rips through a plot that is as manic as they come. If you think that little Regan saying in a strained voice “you mother sucks cock in hell” was bad then you haven’t seen anything yet. Everything, including the kitchen sink, is tossed into this story. Beyond over the top The Black Exorcist is one of my favorite pulp fiction books of all time.

Nathan Heard was born in Newark New Jersey in 1936. He served in the U.S. Air force from 1952-1953. He spent 17 years in and out of prison for offenses that included armed robbery.

While in prison he started reading books by authors as varied as Langston Hughes, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, James Baldwin and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

He wrote and published his first novel, Howard Street, while sill in prison. It became a best seller with over a million copies sold.

After his release from prison Heard was able to parlay the success of his book into speaking gigs and would teach creative writing at Fresno State College from 1969-1970 and was an assistant professor of English at Rutgers from 1970-1972. He was a speechwriter for Newark mayor Kenneth Gibson.

His later novels wouldn’t generate the same critical and popular attention as Howard Street.

Heard died from Parkinson’s Disease in 2004.

Bibliography
Howard Street (1968)
To Reach a Dream (1972)
A Cold Fire Burning (1974)
When Shadows Fall (1977)
The House of Slammers (1983)

Marc Olden – A guilty pleasure author that published 40 books including the Black Samurai series of books and They Killed Anna.

His best book is the 1978 Edgar nominated novel Poe Must Die. It is the great-lost steampunk novel.

John A. Williams – His novel Captain Blackman published in 1972 is about the role and sometimes forgotten history of black men in the military. Captain Blackman is a solider in Vietnam who, after becoming injured, hallucinates back in time as a solider in each of America’s wars from 1775 to 1975.

Hugh Holton was born in 1947 and died on 2001. He would earn a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters degree in History. He served in the U.S. Army for three years including time in Vietnam.

Hugh Holton was a Chicago police officer for 32 years. His father was a police officer as well for 33 years. Even after his novels started to gain attention he proved that his veins ran with blue first and foremost and ink second by continuing to work on the force. He wrote nine novels before his death.

Bibliography
Presumed Dead, Forge, 1994.
Windy City, Forge, 1995.
Chicago Blues, Forge, 1996.
Violent Crimes, Forge, 1997.
Red Lightning, Forge, 1998.
The Left Hand of God, Forge, 1999.
Time of the Assassins, Forge, 2000.
The Devil’s Shadow, Forge, 2001.
Criminal Element, Forge, 2002.

Njami Simon – Simon’s Coffin & Co. is an at times brilliant post-modern novel about two Harlem police detectives who convince their friends and co-workers that they are the real life inspiration for Chester Himes’ characters Grave Digger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson. When they find out that Himes intends to kill the characters off they travel to Paris to try and convince Himes not to do it. Of course once they get there they find themselves involved in a murder plot.

Gar Anthony Haywood. Haywood is best known for his series of novels featuring L.A. PI Aaron Gunner. His first novel, Fear of the Dark, won the won the St. Martins’ Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel Award. He is also a recipient of the Shamus and Anthony awards.

His third novel, You Can Die Trying, was able to draft off of the success created by Bill Clinton’s now seminal remark about Walter Mosley. He also wrote a series of books that featured a pair of black retirees that traveled around the country and a third series with a female protagonist named Ronnie Deal. But his standalones and the new series’ wouldn’t be nearly as popular as the Aaron Gunner books.

His acclaimed novel, All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, published in 2000 paid homage to Chester Himes with the death of a major rap artist called CE Digga Jones as the central murder.

Robert O Greer. Greer graduated from Miami University at Oxford, Ohio in 1965 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He would go on to earn degrees in pathology dentistry, and medicine as well as a master’s degree in Creative Writing. He is a professor of pathology, medicine, surgery, and dentistry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center with a specialty in head and neck pathology and cancer research. In 1983 his research group was the first in the world to report a synergistic link between smokeless tobacco use and human papillomaviruses in certain cancers of the mouth. In addition to his novels he has authored or co-authored three medical textbooks and over 125 scientific articles.

He is perhaps best known for his CJ Floyd series. Floyd is a black bail bondsman and bounty hunter in Denver, Colorado. The series starts with The Devil’s Hatband

Sam Greenlee– Greenlee was in The U.S. Army from 1952-1954. He was an agent with the United States Information Agency Foreign Service. Greenlee’s best novel is The Spook Who Sat by the Door, published in 1969, and is about a fictional black CIA agent. In this novel Greenlee uses the entendre “spook” as both a term for a spy and a racial slur to examine deeper the duality of the black experience in America.

Mike Phillips. Phillips was born in Guyana and grew up in London. He worked for 10 years a journalist for the BBC. He is well known for his series of novels featuring black journalist Sam Dean. The first novel in the Dean series is Blood Rights.

VII. Conclusion

Josh Gibson was a baseball player in the Negro leagues. He was a fierce power hitter whose stats are lost to history due to the fuzzy record keeping at best of the time. His feats are legendary and are still remembered to this day.

During the height of their playing days it was often in the white press said of Gibson that he was the black Babe Ruth. Then there were those who actually saw Gibson play, they said that Babe Ruth was the white Josh Gibson.

We look at authors like Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford & David Goodis and consider their qualities as dark, raw & unflinching writers to be what makes them classics. Every accolade has been heaped on them and they all have been deserved. But maybe just this one time its ok for us to say that Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford & David Goodis are the white Clarence Cooper Jr., Donald Goines & Chester Himes.

  • originally published 7/16/2007

Brian loves both kinds of books — fiction and non-fiction. He is an all around book john and reviewing roustabout.