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Crime Files – All Shot Up by Chester Himes #BookReview

The shocking and explosive hardboiled classic. From murderers to prostitutes, corrupt politicians and racist white detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, Harlem’s toughest detective duo, must carry the day against an absurdist world of racism and class warfare.

All Shot Up by Chester Himes book cover

Title: All Shot Up | Author: Chester Himes | Series: Harlem Cycle #5 | Publisher: Penguin Classics | Pages: 211 | ISBN: 9780141196497 | Publication date: 1960 | Starred Review: Yes | Source: Purchased

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All Shot Up Review

Chester Himes is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for years, but never quite got to. A reference to him in one of the blurbs for SA Cosby’s excellent ‘Blacktop Wasteland’ reminded me of him and I picked up a copy of ‘All Shot Up’. Himes is perhaps the most respected black crime writer, and on the basis of this book that’s not a surprise. Published in 1960, it’s an excellent mystery, rich in atmosphere. It borrows from the traditions of the genre, but also reflects the reality of African American life, giving it a very different flavour to the works of Chandler and Hammett.

The book is set in Harlem and follows a pair of black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones as they investigate a hit and run killing. It’s one of a number of Harlem based books that Himes wrote, and it has a fantastic sense of place. The neighbourhood feels very real, packed with prostitutes, criminals and gamblers alongside the more honest inhabitants. I recently read ‘Deacon King Kong’ by James McBride, which did a similarly good job of depicting black New York. Himes ties that to a strong mystery though, making for a more enjoyable book than McBride’s.

Like all great detectives, Johnson and Jones are at the heart of the book. They’re working joes, more akin to the bulls of the 87th Precinct than Holmes or Marlowe. They slog their guts out to solve the crime because that’s what they do, rather than because they enjoy puzzles. There’s a real desire for justice running through the book though, a need to right great wrongs. That’s true of both the actual crime and the everyday discrimination and deprivation that the two detective and other black characters face. Be it corrupt politicians or racist white cops, the system does everything it can to oppress Harlem’s black citizens. 

That undercurrent gives the book a lot more power than many crime novels. It’s a great read that’s gripping, thoughtful and impactful. 

Content Warning:

Rape, child abuse, racism

You can purchase a copy of this book via your normal retailer, but please consider purchasing it from a local indie bookshop instead. It can be found here at Indiebound or at Bookshop. Please note the Bookshop link is an affiliate link and each purchase you make through it helps to support Sci-Fi & Scary and keep the site running.

Published inBook ReviewsCrime FilesStarred Reviews

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