Chester Himes is a fascinating author: born in the US in 1909, his life story includes a 20 year jail sentence for armed robbery, when a young man. It was in prison that he began to write. He is best known for his series of police detective novels, usually featuring one of the great, disreputable “cop-buddy” pairings Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson: known as the Harlem Detective novels – and if you ever get the chance and want to read some fast, furious and entirely “unreconstructed” novels, these are the ones to turn to.
Himes was black and he “wrote black”, unapologetically and was repeatedly criticised for doing so: his characters ran the full gamut of human types and this was precisely the problem as far as commentators on almost all sides were concerned. America of the 1940s and 1950s couldn’t cope with him.
Lonely Crusade is a different type of novel from the hard-boiled detective series: it concerns itself with life, working conditions, trade union activism, “the communist threat”, and police corruption in Los Angeles during the second world war, as seen through the eyes of Lee Gordon, the (fictional) first black trade union leader in the area at that time. He has to deal with racism, anti-semitism, corruption, not to mention all of the day to day labour force / management strife familiar to union workers.
James Baldwin said of the novel, “The value of this book lies in its effort to understand the psychology of oppressed and oppressor and their relationship to each other”.
It is a muscular powerhouse and there is nothing subtle about it. It sits along On the Waterfront in terms of showing ‘the voice of the little man just trying to get a break again corporate America’ and is, I think to some extent underrated or undiscovered. It is a good novel that deserves a higher profile.