Friday, February 14, 2014

Book Review: The Big Gold Dream by Chester Himes

I despise tacked-on settings in books. It’s something I see a lot in the mystery genre, with stories taking place in some historical era or another, or in some exotic locale, but the story feels like it could take place anywhere. The setting is just a gimmick.
The Big Gold Dream by Chester Himes.

Chester Himes’ books don’t have that problem. His Coffin Ed & Gravedigger Jones series evoke a time and place that’s so much a part of the plot that it just couldn’t be anywhere else. You can hear the Harlem of the ‘50s and ‘60s. You can smell it. You can even taste it, as food seems to come up quite a bit, whether it’s the two black NYPD detectives eating spicy stewed chicken feet and okra in the back of a cramped shop (in All Shot Up), or Sugar Stonewall in The Big Gold Dream, sneaking into his girlfriend’s apartment to scrounge something to eat after days of evading the cops:

“He got out the big iron skillet, poured in some half rancid drippings from the lard can on the back of the stove and put the chops on to fry. While they were frying, he pried the hominy grits from the saucepan in one piece, and cut it into slices an inch thick.

When the chops were done he added more drippings, fried the hominy grits a rich brown, stacked them alongside the chops and fried eggs country style. He put the fried eggs on top of the grits and dumped the greens and okra into the pan, bringing it just to a boil.

He left everything on top of the stove and ate, standing, until it was all gone.”

But The Big Gold Dream isn’t a cookbook, however evocative the food descriptions are. It’s a crime novel, and Chester Himes does it hardboiled and brutal. He knew about crime firsthand, being in trouble more than out of it as a youth, and ultimately ending up in in Ohio Penitentiary for armed robbery. Himes started writing stories while in prison, as a way of avoiding violence, he said, and was published in places like Esquire. He continued writing after his release, and made friends with Langston Hughes, who introduced him to publishers and literary types. He went on to win the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France, and ultimately settled there until his death in 1984. Four of Himes’ books have been filmed: If He Hollers, Let Him Go!, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Come Back, Charleston Blue, and A Rage in Harlem.

Chester Himes in France, where he found critical acclaim.

The Big Gold Dream is the fourth in the Coffin Ed & Gravedigger Jones series, and it opens at an over-the-top revival meeting, presided over by the silver-tongued, flashy, and somewhat-sleazy Sweet Prophet Brown. Things get a little crazy after Alberta Wright has an epiphany, gets religion, and swigs some of Sweet Prophet Brown’s holy water. She collapses, and is thought dead, sending her boyfriend Sugar Stonewall fleeing. After a stash of money goes missing, things get a lot crazy, and the bodies begin to pile up. Just about everyone in the neighborhood is a suspect. If they don’t have the money, they’d certainly like to, and the fact that they’re just about all guilty of something, makes for all manner of deceptions, lies, and double-crosses. As Coffin Ed Johnson tells Sweet Prophet, “People will recrucify Jesus Christ for thirty-six grand.”

Some have complained that this particular novel doesn’t have enough of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, and it’s true that they take a back seat this time. I don’t mind one bit. The action is almost non-stop. A robbery/fight scene that takes place in pitch darkness, with both participants unable to see where the other is, or what he might be wielding, is terrifying and exciting. But even if there were less action, the parade of characters make The Big Gold Dream what it is. There’s the ex-boxer with his tongue cut out, trying to scrape by as a pimp. There’s the shy prostitute. There’s Harlem’s great undertaker, H. Exodus Clay, and a slew of everyday people from furniture dealers to bookmakers.

The Big Gold Dream in paperback, including the French edition, titled Tout pour Plaire.

It occurred to me after reading the book, that Sweet Prophet Brown is a lot like the character Daddy Rich that Richard Pryor played in the 1976 movie Car Wash. Daddy Rich’s arrival is a lot like Sweet Prophet’s street revival at the opening of Himes’ book. The similarities don’t end there. Car Wash also has a parade of disparate characters—prostitutes, preachers, everyday working folks—and only the thinnest thread of a through-story to bind them together. In The Big Gold Dream, the through-story is a crime, but just as in Car Wash, it’s the people that really make it what it is. 

While not my favorite of Himes’ Coffin Ed & Gravedigger Jones books, it’s still a good read. It might even be a good introduction to Himes for those who haven’t read him. If you like the glimpse of the Harlem cops you see here, you’ll be in for a real treat when you read the other titles that feature them more prominently.

This post was written for the Friday’s Forgotten Books event hosted by Patti Abbott. See her blog for a collection of reviews on all kinds of eclectic titles.

What books have you read in which plot and setting are inextricably linked? Comments welcome.


  1. Like Bill, I'm a fan of this series, too. You're right about the setting being a compelling factor in the books. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO series is enhanced by its setting. The JUDGE DEE series set in China relies on its unique setting and culture as major factors in solving the mysteries.

  2. Though that whole breakfast sequence could've described a typical morning for members of both my maternal and paternal extended families! And it's interesting the librarian-heavy Fiction-L list was just discussing how crime-fiction is often so informative in its tendency to be set in various historical or at least exotic settings (though this can be as much a distraction or clumsy contrivance, as you note, as anything else). I still need to read the Himes novels...having enjoyed several of the films...and the work of his heirs, whom include Elmore Leonard and to some extent John Ball (almost in conscious rejection/seeking to go the opposite way)...

  3. I haven't read any of Chester Himes books yet, so thanks for the push. I was remembering in my childhood when we use to cook using saved bacon drippings that sat on the back of the stove (shudder) as I read that passage.

  4. Kelly, thanks for writing about Chester Himes and his work. I have never read any of his novels. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones sound like fascinating characters.

  5. Thansk Kelly - I've seen some of the film adaptations but never actually read any of Himes' fiction but I do have a couple n the shelf (COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is one of them, I suspect) - must take a look - thanks!

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