Coffin Ed Johnson
- Grave Digger in Blind Man With a Pistol
One of the true masters of the genre, Chester Himes "could write like a dream," according to Art Bourgeau in The Mystery Lovers' Companion, "and his prose was like music." Himes, a black American, served eight years in an Ohio penitentiary for armed robbery, where he discovered the work of Dashiell Hammett, and vowed to write books that would, in his words, "tell it like it is." Upon his release, he moved to Paris and did just that, writing a string of what he called his "Harlem domestic detective stories." And true to his adopted country, he wrote all but one of his novels in French.
Most of Himes' books featured black Harlem cops "COFFIN" ED JOHNSON and "GRAVE DIGGER" JONES. They might have been members of New York's Finest, but they sure acted like a couple of private eyes. And a couple of noticably corrupt, vicious private eyes at that! Their M.O. seems to include shooting people, busting heads and extracting confessions through intimidation.They appeared in a string of comical, tragical, preposterously violent novels, starting with 1959's A Rage in Harlem (first published in French as La Reine des Pomme) which won the Grand Prix de la Litterature Policière.
A few attempts to capture Himes unique vision on film have been made. In the seventies, Raymond St. Jacques played Ed and Godfrey Cambridge played Gravedigger in Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970) and Come Back, Charleston (1972). Fun, but played for laughs. 1991's A Rage in Harlem, although filmed in Cincinatti, really captured the essence of Himes' book. In fact George Wallace as Gravedigger, and Stack Pierce as Ed, as in the book, have only small parts.
"The movie has a nice period atmosphere, which is remarkable, since it was shot with Cincinnati doubling for Harlem," Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, "and it captures some of the texture of Himes' novel, his love of characters who use their wits to outsmart each other. What's best in the movie is the chemistry between Whitaker and Givens, who is surprisingly effective in her first feature role."
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