The Discernment of the Reluctant Detective: Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go

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Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) – detail from UK first edition cover

I’ve been working in earnest on Chester Himes’s 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go over the last few weeks. His first published novel, If He Hollers… is set in WWII Los Angeles, and it focuses on Bob Jones, a black shipyard worker at the fictional Atlas Shipping. We follow Bob over several days as he experiences the complicated racial politics of wartime LA, and specifically the downward spiral of consequences that flow from him talking back to a southern white female colleague who abusively refuses to work alongside him.

Himes’s writing career can be rather crudely divided into two halves: the two novels that came out of his time on the west coast during the 1940s, If He Hollers… and Lonely Crusade, and the ‘Harlem Cycle’ he wrote after leaving the US for France. The former are both concerned with industrial relations, race and sexual politics in 1940s Los Angeles; they are superficially realist in style, at least in comparison to his later work, and have often been analysed in relation to the protest novel form. The latter series was a conscious attempt to write genre fiction — Himes’s take on the ‘tough’ crime novel. The Harlem books are pitch black criminal tales threaded with absurdity and morbid humour; black NYPD detectives ‘Coffin’ Ed Johnson and ‘Gravedigger’ Jones are such fearsome and brutal figures that their role as the ostensible heroes of the series is rendered particularly ambiguous.

Against this rather superficial summary, there is a good case to be made that Himes’s LA novels engage with the noir/hard-boiled tradition as much as they do the protest novel — as Nathanael Rich suggests, for example. My concern here isn’t to argue that they fit within a particular strictly defined generic category, although from the perspective of my research, I am interested in If He Hollers… as a Los Angeles-set narrative of incrimination in which the protagonist experiences moments of disorientation. In analysing Himes’s novel in relation to my other texts, though, I have been more and more struck by some fascinating parallels and common tropes. I will focus here on considering Himes and Chandler, although there are other interesting potential comparisons that need to be explored (such as Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place).

The Mobile Detective

In Chandler criticism, much is made of Philip Marlowe’s mobility and his knowledge of the city — his fluid navigation across a Los Angeles depicted as a patchwork of discrete districts, and his attunement to the different socio-political qualities of these spaces. ‘Chandler plotted a political geography of the LA Basin’, as William Marling suggests (p. 114). The notion is central to Fredric Jameson’s reading of Chandler, for example, and David Fine similarly suggests:

Marlowe, the first motorized private eye in the most thoroughly motorized city in America, is analogous to the picaresque hero who moves from one place to another, linking neighbourhoods, characters, and episodes together. In a mobile city Marlowe moves with the kind of fluidity encouraged by the city’s network of roads and highways into every enclave. (p. 120)

I should also note that my own analysis of Chandler very much draws on these accounts, although on my reading, Chandler demonstrates that Marlowe’s investigative mastery, though bound up with geographical knowledge and automobility, is a precarious thing that is implicated with time and identity as well as space. What we should take from Chandler, I argue, is both the significance of the city’s segmented geography, and the limits of understanding the city in solely spatial terms.

For all that this is an influential aspect of Chandler’s writing (and as importantly, an aspect of the subsequent critical response to Chandler), researching Himes further emphasises how important it is to contextualise such readings. The risk being that Chandler’s significance is overplayed, or that other contemporary voices are not treated to the same deep level of analysis.

Focusing on movement and geography, it becomes clear that Himes’s Bob Jones is no less mobile, and no less motorised, than Chandler’s private eye. I’ve posted before about how Bob’s car ownership is central to his own sense of status and identity. And he easily travels an equivalent distance in If He Hollers… (1945) to Marlowe in The High Window (1942) for examplefrom Watts south to the ship yards of San Pedro, north to downtown and Little Tokyo, west to Santa Monica via West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. (I have been working on mapping his movements across the city using Google Maps, as I’ve previously done with The High Window, and I’ll write a separate post on this in the future.)

Jones moves, moreover, with his own highly sensitive understanding of the city’s social and racial nuances. Having followed a white colleague home to the Huntington Park neighbourhood, Bob reflects on the obtrusiveness of his own brief presence there, a black man in a white neighbourhood. He is even more conscious of this when he spends time in downtown Los Angeles, eating dinner with his partner Alice in an upscale hotel or attempting to visit a movie theatre. In the former scene he attempts defiance in the face of the racism he and Alice experience, and in doing so angers Alice, who is accustomed to repressing her awareness of such discrimination.

From the very first pages of the novel, Himes establishes Bob as a character with an acutely sensitive apprehension his society’s racial codes and structure. Jones is equally attuned, though, to the geographical nuances of social class and economic status; as, for example, in  the difference between his own neighbourhood and that of Alice and her upwardly mobile middle class parents:

When you asked a Negro where he lived, and he said on the West Side, that was supposed to mean he was better than the Negroes who lived on the South Side; it was like the white folks giving a Beverly Hills address. (p. 58)

Particularly significant is his sensitivity to the precariousness of existence in the Little Tokyo neighbourhood, or Bronzeville as it was briefly known at the time. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Angelenos of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps; the properties that were vacated as a result were appropriated by African American residents in response to the chronic housing shortage in the limited areas of the city (around Central Avenue, and in Watts) where black Angelenos were actually permitted to rent or own property. The uncertain legal status that the area was temporarily founded on meant that Bronzeville also became a centre for illicit commerce, with a nightlife driven by underworld interests. As R.J. Smith writes in The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance:

Bronzeville was a place where looking the other way became almost a physical tic. Nobody knew who owned a given building. Nobody knew who was responsible for controlling the streets […]. Bronzeville was the Wild West. It was thrilling, it was dangerous, and it was somebody else’s land. (p. 142)

When a hungover Bob decides ‘I just wanted to get away from the so-called respectable people of the world’ (p. 88) the morning after his emotionally charged date with Alice, he drives to a bar in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville. Already feeling uneasy, the tense situation he witnesses in this bar pushes him further into anxiety and instability. He is painfully aware that the drunk white woman who makes a scene and begins flirting with black customers in the bar is entirely unaware of the consequences her actions may have for everyone else but her, if it draws the attention of the police. And in this dynamic, what is made clear is Bob’s understanding of the instability of the Bronzeville economy, and of its role as a temporary centre for black Angelenos with few other spaces open to them. As Smith again writes:

Nobody knew what to do with Bronzeville, or how long it would exist. Were the Japanese Americans going to be allowed back? For the moment—and the moment was all Bronzeville had—the influx of defense workers ensured that there was money to be spent. (148)

The Reluctant Detective

All of this is interesting to me firstly because it suggests that the degree of city knowledge required for Marlowe to operate as a skilled private eye is not dissimilar to the degree of city knowledge that a black Angeleno might require just to be — to navigate the complex racial topography of midcentury LA. Smith again makes some powerful points that back up this reading, with his observation that in Jim Crow era Los Angeles, racism was not brutally overt as it was in the south, but it nevertheless existed and had to be discerned.

An ironic remark that had to be turned 180 degrees to be understood, a downward casting of the eyes. The angle of a hat. A mark on a playing card. A newcomer quickly learned the cues and how to read them. Those who were going to make it in the new West interpreted the invisible and discerned where they couldn’t go, what they couldn’t buy, where the other man lived. Avoid that block, that cop, that hour. A brand new oral tradition floated on the orange-scented breeze, and you learned it bit by bit. And lived. (p. 43)

It is this, in part, that makes Bob Jones’s experience an essentially Los Angeles one, and Himes’s novel such a significant LA novel.

One of the central and most troubling questions the novel poses about Jones’s perspective on wartime LA society is: even if he’s right — that is, even if he perceives correctly, intuits soundly — would he be better off being wrong? Would he be better off, individually, if he saw less, ignored more, forgot more? This is exactly what Alice urges him to do, this is what the middle class African Americans such as her parents are depicted as profiting from, even though Bob is ultimately unable to assume a ‘thicker skin’ in the way society presses him to do — he can’t ignore the injustices and humiliations, and he can’t repress his anger and resentment.

This question makes If He Hollers… fascinating to me because in it, the ethical and socio-political dilemmas of Jim Crow-era LA intersect with a trope — of knowledge being dangerous, and exposing the subject to greater risks — that runs from the hard-boiled detective novel (in which the vulnerability of the detective is fundamental aspect) to danger of ‘playing detective’ that is so significant in the films of David Lynch (and indeed, in the fate of The Big Nowhere’s Danny Upshaw, also arises in Ellroy’s fiction). Meaning that Bob Jones is not only a noir protagonist of the kind whose actions trigger a series of worsening and ultimately inescapable consequences; he might also be, through instinct and inner compulsion, a detective driven to expose crimes otherwise repressed and denied.

Works Cited

David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2000).

Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999).

William Marling, ‘City of Sleuths’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, ed. by Kevin R. McNamara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 111–22.

R. J. Smith, The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2006).

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Author: Alex Pavey

I'm a UCL English Literature PhD, researching Los Angeles literature and cinema across the twentieth century - particularly, although not exclusively, narratives of crime and detection.

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