Coffin Ed Johnson & Grave Digger Jones
Created by Chester Himes (1908-1984)

"We just get pissed-off with all the red tape...We just want to get down to the nitty-gritty."
- 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."

NOVELS

  • La Reine des Pommes (1959; aka "For Love of Imabelle" & "A Rage in Harlem")...Buy this book
  • The Crazy Kill (1959)
  • The Real Cool Killers (1959)
  • All Shot Up (1960)
  • The Big Gold Dream (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")

FILMS

  • COTTON COMES TO HARLEM
    (1970)
    97 minutes
    Based on the novel by Chester Himes
    Director: Ossie Davis
    Starring Raymond St. Jacques as COFFIN ED JOHNSON
    and Godfrey Cambridge as GRAVE DIGGER JONES
    Also starring
    Calvin lockhart, Judy Pace, Redd Foxx, Emily Yancy, Cleavon Little
    .
  • COME BACK, CHARLESTON BLUE
    (1972)
    100 minutes
    Based on the novel, The Heat's On, by Chester Himes
    Director: Mark Warren
    Score by Donny Hathaway
    Starring Raymond St. Jacques as COFFIN ED JOHNSON
    and Godfrey Cambridge as GRAVE DIGGER JONES
    Also starring
    Jonelle Allen, Adam Wade, Peter DeAnda
    .
  • A RAGE IN HARLEM
    (1991, Miramax)
    98 minutes
    Written by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford
    Based on the novel by Chester Himes. Directed by Bill Duke
    Produced by Stephen Woolley and Kerry Boyle
    Music by Elmer Bernstein
    Starring Forest Whitaker as Jackson
    and Robin Givens as Imabelle
    With George Wallace as GRAVE DIGGER JONES
    and Stack Pierce as COFFIN ED JOHNSON
    Also starring
    Gregory Hines, Zakes Mokae, Danny Glover, Badja Djola, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, James Spinks

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to John McDonagh for his valuable help on this one.


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