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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Hate it When a Plan Doesn't Come Together . .

  • By Chester Himes

    University Press of Mississippi
    (September 1994)
    ISBN-10: 087805751X

    Fans of Chester Himes's great detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, may be tempted to pick up Plan B, Himes's last Harlem Cycle novel, published posthumously in France in 1984 and released in the U.S. a decade later. 
Caveat lector!

Plan B was never finished by Himes. The book published under that name is the draft of a novel Himes was working on at the time of his death that has been kludged together with an ending contrived from the author's own notes. It is by no means a finished product, and it has so many obvious flaws that it is not clear that Himes would have been able to put it into publishable form had he lived another twenty years.

The novel starts in typical Himes fashion, with a tenement dweller named T-Bone Smith "laughing like an idiot at two blackfaced white minstrels on the television screen who earned a fortune by blacking their faces and acting just as foolish as T-bone had done for free all his life."

Smith, like many of the low-life characters that figure in Himes's novels, is the broadest possible a caricature of an urban black: a shiftless, ignorant man who lives off his prostitute wife.

In a typical Himes novel, we would follow him through a series of misadventures, possibly as a sidelight to a larger criminal plot, that culminates in a violent confrontation with Digger and Coffin Ed during which the bigger issues come to resolution and the loose ends are, if not neatly tied up, at least lopped off with a meat-ax. 

But this is not your average Harlem Cycle crime programmer.

Almost as soon as he is introduced, a messenger delivers a package to T-Bone from an anonymous benefactor. Inside it he finds an assault rifle and enough ammunition to wage a minor  war, along with these cryptic instructions:

Warning!! Do not inform police!!! Learn your weapon and wait for instructions!!! Repeat!!! Learn your weapon and wait for instructions!!! Warning!!! Do not inform police!!! Freedom is near!!!

T-Bone quarrels over the gun with Tang, the prostitute he lives with: he wants to turn it over to the cops, while she wants to keep it and follow the instructions. She seizes the weapon and tries to shoot T-Bone with it only to find the magazine is empty. The furious T-Bone kills her with his switchblade, police are summoned and Coffin Ed and Digger respond.

Here is where things get seriously strange: Digger, who is usually the more rational of the two detectives, explodes in rage and kills T-Bone for no good reason by smashing his skull with his custom-made long-barreled .38 Police Special. He is placed on suspension soon afterward and spends most of the rest of the book on the sidelines.  

Coffin Ed, who is generally the more violent of the two detectives, remains on the job, but also ends up shunted out of action until the last few pages of the book.

Absent the two detectives -- who are the usual focal point of a Harlem Cycle story --  the remainder of the novel traces the history of a African-American militant named Tomsson Black and his forebears back to the Civil War era. It also follows a series of business transactions involving a company called Chitterlings, Inc.

These parallel stories unfold against the backdrop of a series of mass shootings involving disparate black men equipped with assault rifles almost identical to the one received by T-Bone Smith.

In each case, the gun was delivered without explanation by a messenger. The weapons have no identifying marks and their ammunition has been custom-made to eliminate features that would allow police to trace it back to its manufacturer.  

Eventually, it becomes clear that the mass shootings are intended to provoke a racial war. Each massacre is described in gory detail, and each results in a violent counter-strike by white police officers or well-armed white racists. 

Soon black citizens are issued identification cards, placed under strict curfews and restricted to their own black enclaves -- only to fall prey to roving bands of white people determined to eradicate them.

It is never explained why those who receive the weapons are so quick to use them in suicide attacks on whites. Because some of the gunmen are described as successful professionals, the reader is left to conclude that the only motivation that is necessary to turn any black man, rich or poor,  into a race warrior is his pathological hatred for whites.

The random shootings, in any event, seems to backfire: instead of provoking a racial revolution, they result in a bloodbath that seems likely to end only with the extermination of the black minority by the white majority.

As the action proceeds, we come to understand that the mysterious Tomsson Black is behind the ten million guns that are flooding the ghettos and provoking racial Armageddon.  But the only people who seem to be able to figure this out are Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, who confront Black in the final pages of the novel. 

Plan B is by no means the first time Himes has looked at the  seemingly intractable issue of conflict between blacks and whites in one of his books; in fact, it seems to be the central thread that runs through almost everything he ever wrote.

But this novel lacks the humor Himes brings to most of the rest of his hard-boiled Harlem novels, a bleak drollery that lampoons whites for their mindless racism at the same time as it spoofs blacks who conform to the stereotypes whites have assigned. 

In Plan B, Himes is serious -- deadly serious -- about the inability of American blacks and whites to coexist. And in the final analysis Himes seems to conclude that the racial animosity that gives the novel its shape is actually insoluble --  even through the prophylaxis of violence.

"Tomsson Black would have liked to have had the time to organize the black race into effective guerrilla units, and the units into an effective force, in order to add weight to his ultimatum," Himes writes in the final chapter. 

"He would also have liked to have granted white people the time for reflection and consideration before they made their choice. Somehow it had gotten out of his control.  Now all he could do was complete the distribution of the guns and let maniacal, unorganized and uncontrolled blacks massacre enough whites to make a dent in the white man's hypocrisy, before the entire black race was massacred in retaliation."

But this passage seems as if Himes has suddenly realized that his plot has run off its tracks, and he tries to make up for  inadequate story-telling by simply summarizing information that should have been explicated more thoroughly and skillfully as his narrative progressed, not thrown in at the very end.

But the worst is yet to come: Himes aware that he has painted himself into a corner with his fantasy of racial warfare, now cops out completely in a manner that is utterly incomprehensible to anyone who has read any of the other novels about Digger and Coffin Ed.  

He has Digger, the most reasonable member of the team, come to Black's defense, while Ed, the man with the hair- trigger temper and the slippery hold on his emotions, inexplicably sides with the white racist status quo.

Given time enough, Himes might have worked out some mechanism that rationalizes this complete personality reversal, but not a word of explanation is offered.

Even more inexplicable is what happens next (spoiler alert!): Digger ends up shooting Coffin Ed, his long-time partner and closest friend, just before he is murdered himself by Black. 

The novel ends with Black's unnamed companion, "a beautiful black woman," asking him why he shot Grave Digger since the detective was on his side.

Black lamely explains that Digger had to be eliminated "because he knew too much."

"I hope you know what you're doing," the woman tells him in the last line of the novel. It is a flat ending to a flat tale that is full of violence and mayhem, but to no particular purpose.

Unfortunately, Himes doesn't appear to have known what he was doing when he was writing Plan B.  And the editors who pieced together the bits and pieces he left behind when he died seem to have been clueless as well. How else to explain such a radical transformation of Himes's two best-known characters and the holes that riddle the novel's plot like a sieve?

Plan B is a sadly unsatisfactory way to end the Harlem Cycle. Better that Himes hadn't bothered to start a final book at all than to have left this travesty that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of those who love his other work.

No nooses.

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