Forty years ago, when a French publisher asked Chester Himes to try writing a detective novel, he situated it in Harlem.
Himes' hard-boiled Harlem was home to a surrealistic cast of con men, pimps and outcasts: a black world where the real criminal was the white system. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Anthony Mason profiles Chester Himes as part of a special CBS.com series on mystery writers.
"They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn't respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed's pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger['s] would bury it." (A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes)
"Chester was really neglected here in the states," says Sallis. "And when I first started writing about him, all of his books, every one of them, was out of print."
But his writing gave birth to two of crime fiction's most enduring cops: Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones: "Both were tall, loose-jointed, sloppily dressed, ordinary looking, dark-brown colored men. They didn't like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves," Himes wrote.
"And I created a city. Harlem. My Harlem," Himes said once in an interview about his writing. "First of all, the Harlem I created was a state of mind. It held no relationship other than a superficial relationship to the real Harlem."
Author James Sallis
Himes' father, a college professor, taught blacksmithing. But his mother, so light-skinned she saw herself as white, had higher aspirations for the family.
"He had the initial trauma of being born a black man with no power...to a very ambitious mother. And having inherited both that sense of powerlessness and that ambition," Sallis explains.
Himes went off to college at Ohio State University in Cleveland and was soon lured by the underside of the Midwestern city.
Gambling, pimping and writing bad checks led to Himes' arrest on a robbery charge at age 19. He spent seven and a half years in the Ohio state penitentiary and was released during the Great Depression.
Writer nd director Melvin van Peebles, who befriended Himes in Paris, says the author had a reputation for volatility, emerging from indignation over his second-class citizenship.
"Now Chester just called it the way he saw it. And calling it the way he saw it, at that stage of the game, was considered militant, angry, et cetera, et cetera," says van Peebles.
"While in prison, Chester began to sell short stories to, first black newspapers and magazines, then to Esquire," says Sallis.
A first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go, showed promise. But the critics later turned on him. Subsequently, Himes turned on America by departing for Europe.
"Well, he'd gotten pretty much fed up with America. And as he says in his book, he wanted some freedom. He wanted some breathing room," says van Peebles.
That's when a French publisher of detective paperbacks commissioned him to write A Rage in Harlem. The novel won France's grand prize for police literature, published under the title La Reine des Pommes, French for "The Queen of the Apples."
"The French adored him - adored what he wrote," says artist Herbert Gentry, who was part of the black expatriate scene in Paris during that era.
"There's something about Chester when he started writing his books, about the black thing in the states and all the comical things of black Americans and all like that. It took a certain class, a certain group of French who really thought that was funnyÂ….And they started buying his books."
Van Peebles was a reporter for a French newspaper when he was assigned to write a story on the award-winning author.
"I was trying to find some deeper meaning into what he was doing," says van Peebles. "I said, 'Well sir, why are you doing it like this?' He said, 'Really, my contracts are that I do 200 pages. So you write 200 pages.'"
"That was itÂ….He sort of had this ambiguity about it, sort of like watching your mother-in-law drive over the cliff in your new Cadillac," he says.
The Harlem cycle, as some of his books came to be known, included his Blind Man with a Pistol, and Cotton Comes to Harlem. In 1972 the film version of Cotton Comes to Harlem brought Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones to life.
Finally Himes had recognition in his native land, but h never moved back to the United States.
In 1972, his speech slightly slurred from a stroke, Himes gave a rare television interview: "Writing for me was a way of life. It gave me, it fulfilled me to write, every page."
Himes, who made a living from crime fiction, left his own life somewhat of a mystery. "[He was] an intensely secret man," Sallis declares.
In 1984, Chester Himes died in Spain. But Sallis says he is still looking for the real Himes.
"The source of his anger, the source of his bitterness, the source of his power, the source of his life was all very distinctly American," says Sallis.
"And he was writing about American society even at the endÂ….I feel as though I've got glimpses of Chester running through the trees, that I have moments when the clouds part and the light shines and I say, 'Eureka, that's Chester.' But the clouds always close back over," says Sallis.
All of Himes' work is in print again in America. But even in death, the author himself remains in exile.