MysteryPeople Double Feature: RAGE IN HARLEM by Chester Himes

MysteryPeople Partners with Authors & Auteurs for Return to Normal: A 50s Film Noir Film Series

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

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For the past few years, MysteryPeople has highlighted some of our favorite noir cinema based on crime fiction, with discussions following each screening to discuss the book and film. This year, MysteryPeople’s Double Feature film series is partnering with the Author & Auteurs Book Club for a summer of films highlighting the injustices and rot beneath the glamorous veneer of 1950s America. We’re kicking it off with a screening of A Rage In Harlem, Chester Himes’ seminal 1957 crime novel adapted into director Bill Duke’s 1991 movie, this Sunday, June 4, at 2 PM. In some ways the relationship between book and film contradicts the usual film adaptation.

A Rage In Harlem is not only a rollicking, tight, fast moving crime novel, it is a densely packed look at life and culture of the neighborhood in the title. The story follows a somewhat innocent mortician, Jackson, who loses his money and woman, Imabelle, who could easily be part of the scam. To get her back, he enlists his hustler brother Goldie. Their search maneuvers through neighborhoods and cat houses, and past preachers, hotel bell boys, gamblers, and carousers, and connects the brothers to a trunk full of treasure some bad men from Mississippi, Harlem crime boss Easy Money, and hard ass cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson (who become the series leads in later Himes novels) are all after.

The film does its best to capture the book. Bill Dike worked with cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, production designer Steve Legler, and costume designer Nele Samples deliver a Harlem of bright, mostly primary colors. Forrest Whitaker and Gregory Hines play Jackson and Goldie with the broad style of the story, while making them human. Robin Givens goes an underrated turn as Imabelle, that keeps you guessing of her intentions. To capture the absurdity of Chester Himes’ work, several of the supporting characters are played by comic actors.

This is the rare occurrence where the film augments the story of the novel instead of condensing it. Himes’ tight plotting allowed for some explanation of the back story.  The film opens with an intense shootout where we learn about what happened with that trunk in Mississippi. The story is given more heart as we see how Jackson and Imabelle got together.

It is odd to discover that the book from 1957 is raunchier and more violent than a 1991 film. The adaptation proves to be a colorful look at the past, made from a novel that took a detailed look at Himes’ present. The social, political, and racial themes are less overt. The adaptation creates some disconnect, but it is still entertaining.

Double Feature Stats:

Adherence To Plot Of The Book: 4.4 out of 5

Adherence To Quality Of The Book: 3 out of 5

Further Reading: Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker, Fearless Jones by Walter Mosely, more Chester Himes

Further Viewing: Devil In A Blue Dress, Shaft, Hoodlum

Fun Facts: Roger Ebert viewed an early cut of the film that was muddled, giving it a thumbs down on At The Movies, but after seeing the minute-shorter release version gave it a recommend print review.

The book was first published in France with the title Queen Of Fools.

You can find copies of A Rage In Harlem on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Authors and Auteurs Book Club will meet on Sunday, June 4th, starting at 2 PM, to screen the film adaptation of Himes’ classic work.

Film screenings for the Authors and Auteurs Book Club occur on the first Sunday of each month and are free and open to the public. Film screenings will be followed by discussion of the book versus the film. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with David Swinson

David Swinson has captured our cold, twisted hearts with his Frank Marr trilogy. Marr is a drug-addled former cop who first appeared in all his complicated degenerate glory in The Second Girlwherein he becomes an accidental hero after a trip to buy drugs becomes a rescue mission for a kidnapped woman. In Swinson’s second tale to feature the character, Crime SongMarr takes on a more personal case. We sent him a few questions about his latest. 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

MysteryPeople Scott: This time Marr is pulled into a more personal case involving family. What made you want to explore that part of him, particularly for his second mystery?

David Swinson: I’ve always seen the Marr series as a trilogy. For the second book I wanted to get into his past a bit more, and his history with not only his aunt, but music. He needed something more personal to disrupt him.

MPS: This novel has several twists and reveals. How much had you worked it out before starting the first chapter?

DS: I knew where I wanted to take the story when I began writing. I don’t outline, but I do take a lot of notes, usually when I’m in bed and near sleep. It can drive my wife crazy, but that’s when the ideas come. And it’s usually while writing the first few pages when I take the most notes. A lot will change, though, when the story takes a life of its’ own.

A lot of the twists and turns is a result of that. Some of them even surprised me.

MPS: I felt a subtle change in Frank from The Second Girl, particularly in the way he looks at his addiction. Are being thought of a hero in the first book and what he is facing in Crime Song effecting him, more than he is admitting?

DS: Definitely. Again, that happened when the story started taking on its own life. I think his young cousin had a lot to do with that too. Frank was selfish, thinking he could grab a little something for his stash. It didn’t work out that way. In fact, it turned bad for his cousin. Frank knew he should have intervened so that tore him up emotionally, and when he started to question not only his motives, but the beast that controls him.

MPS: One of the things I love about your writing is I feel the emotion of the story, yet it never overwhelms or feels manipulative. How do you approach emotion without being overwrought?

DS: When Frank Marr first came into my head and started to come to life, I knew he would be a character that would never feel sorry for himself, and would rarely complain. Brooding was out of the question. Sometimes I forget and interject myself into him, my own anxieties. That isn’t Frank. I usually catch it in the first draft. If I don’t, my editor Josh Kendall will. He understands Frank Marr as much as I do. The tension and the emotion that happens should be something natural so I am very conscious about not overdoing it.

MPS: I’ve noticed if things become really bleak in your work, there will be a spark of humor to lighten the events. Are you looking for the humor or is it organic?

DS: It is organic. When it’s not, then it doesn’t feel natural. For me, a lot of the humor happens through dialogue, and that’s not planned out.

MPS: The music of Bread plays an integral part of the plot. Any particular reason you went with them?

DS: That is a bit of my history. I know I said I don’t interject myself into Frank Marr, but so much of it is based on life experience. There’s a difference between that and putting my emotions into Frank Marr’s head. When I was a teenager, my mother used to listen to Bread. It was after my parents’ divorce, and was always something she listened to when she was feeling sad. I’m a devout fan of bands like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Social Distortion, and most early punk rock and alternative music, but I admit I grew to like Bread, as corny as they were. That part of Frank is also me. Only that part.

You can find copies of Crime Song on our shelves or via bookpeople.comThe Second Girl is now out in paperback – you can find copies on our shelves or via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Review: THE PAINTED GUN by Bradley Spinelli

  • Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9781617754982Postmodern private eye novels are always a tight rope for an author. Referencing classic works and their style often reminds the reader of the old masters that did it better. It is a matter of tone that is usually the deciding factor for if these works measure up to those they imitate, something Bradley Spinelli uses to great effect in his new novel, The Painted Gun.

First, he introduces us to a hero who balances familiarity and freshness, then drops him into a provocative premise. David Crane works as an information consultant in mid-nineties San Francisco, talking and narrating in a hard-boiled style that never becomes tongue in cheek. Down near his last dollar, he takes a case from a shady detective from L.A. It seems that people are looking for a mysterious artist only know as Ash. The only clue, her paintings are of Crane at various moments of his life.

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Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9780802124944Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer has left me stunned. This hybrid spy-novel-cum-literary-satire won the Edgar Award in 2015 (which is how I convinced the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to read it) and the Pulitzer the same year, which should begin a long career of appreciation in highbrow and lowbrow circles alike.

At face value, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel from the Vietnamese perspective, ostensibly the perfect place for American readers to immerse themselves in the Vietnamese experience. Yet what Nguyen does best in the novel is expose hypocrisy. Rather than gently guide his readers into unknown waters, he plunges us into confrontation with our own assumptions, our own prejudices, and our own pompous behavior. While reading it, I felt more blown away by observations about the American character than any points about Vietnamese society.

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Shotgun Blast From the Past: CROSS by Ken Bruen

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780312538842Cross, by Ken Bruen, is the sixth book  to feature his caustic “finder” (detective is a suspicious word in Ireland), Jack Taylor. I feel it is one of his lesser lauded novels in the series. This could possibly be because it is often considered a sequel to the fifth book, Priest, and can’t be discussed without dropping spoilers from the previous novel (WARNING- That will happen in the next paragraph). However, it is one of the most focused and emotionally resonate books in the series. Here, Bruen seems intent on getting Jack to another place in his life. Apparently to do this he had to destroy the man he introduced us to in The Guards.

Cross starts out very soon after Priest as Jack faces the fallout from the previous volume’s events. His surrogate son, Cody, lies in a coma, from a bullet probably meant for Jack. Jack suspects the person who fired it could be Cathy, a former friend whose child died under Jack’s drug-addled baby sitting. After going cold-turkey sober, he is approached with two jobs. First, he’s hired to look into a rash of dog disappearances (Jack subcontracts this gig to another former guard). His next case is brought in by his pal in the guards, Ridge. She knows being a lesbian has hampered her rise in the ranks and thinks solving the crucifixion death of a young man may make her career. She asks for Jack’s assistance.

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Life Is a Gamble and There Are No Guarantees: MysteryPeople Q&A with Henry Chang

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Henry Chang’s Lucky is the fifth book in his series featuring NYPD detective Jack Yu. That said, much of the novel deals with Jack’s criminal bloodbrother, Tat – also known as”Lucky.” Tat is a former Ghost Legion gang leader, who comes out of an 88 day coma after being shot in the head twice. 88 is considered a number of high luck and Louie presses it by getting some the old gang back together for a spate of daring robberies against some of the leaders of Chinatown’s organized crime. It’s up to Jack to stop his friend before his luck turns bad. This is the most action packed book in the series yet, and still gives us a great look into New York’s Chinatown. Recently, Henry Chang was kind enough to take a few questions from us.

MysteryPeople Scott: Even though all your work is tight, Lucky had even a tighter pace to it. Where you conscious of that while you were writing?

Henry Chang: The tightness of the pace was an adjustment to the storytelling style. Lucky‘s written more like a thriller than a mystery, where you can’t wait to see what Lucky does next. Unlike Jack’s usual investigative mysteries, which can meander culturally as the clues arise, Lucky is an escalating conflict-driven crime world drive-by. Lucky’s actions drive the narrative.

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Crime Fiction Friday: “Born Under a Bad Sign” by William E. Wallace

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  • Selected and Introduced by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

I was saddened to hear William E Wallace passed away a couple of weeks ago. Wallace was a former crime reporter turned crime fiction writer and advocate; his work was seen often in anthologies or online. Here is a great example of his voice in a piece for Shotgun Honey.

“Born Under a Bad Sign” by William E. Wallace

“To the average gomer sitting in the stop-and-go, it was just another Central Valley commute snafu…”

Read the rest of the story.