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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

I. Variations on a genre

Dismantling the Detective Story: Chester Himes’s Ideological Stand in A Case of Rape

Françoise Clary


In A Case of Rape, Chester Himes uses the crime story pattern to investigate human personality. Employing the logico-temporal gap as a key device in the production of suspense, Himes explores the springs of crime. But there is more to the novel than suspense: also shown is the violence that simmers behind the bland faces of people present to the world. The aim of this paper is to examine the African-American novelist’s two dimensional mode of perception, an ontological way to stand apart from conventional categories in a detective story that takes color from its social environment while imparting it a further layer of meaning.

Texte intégral

1The first thing readers are likely to notice about Chester Himes’s A Case of Rape, a short, pungent, paradoxical and romantic detective story, is the contrast between the realism of the characterization and background and the sensationalism of the plot. Chester Himes should be regarded as the poet of the city. In this crime story, the settings give an impression of personal involvement with the Paris cityscape. Thus, from the start, readers are immersed in the Latin Quarter, more precisely in the area between the Odéon and the Panthéon. They can picture the protagonists wandering through the city streets, such as the rue Monsieur le Prince, imagine Mrs. Hancock having a cup of coffee and Scott Hamilton drinking beer at the terrace of the café Monaco. Readers can also have a broader view of Paris and visualize the protagonists driving to Montmartre, attending a performance at the Grand-Guignol, rue Chaptal close to the Place Pigalle, then heading for Le Lido, avenue des Champs Elysées. The various characters evolve in the Paris experience –from the Latin Quarter to Montmartre or from a small hotel room rue Cujas to the luxurious hotel George V– fitting perfectly into the city’s life. Certainly what is to be stressed is that the various characters get colour and conviction from their surroundings: it is enough to evoke Cesar Gee with his flashy yellow Cadillac in the smart area of hotel George V and the avenue des Champs Elysées or Theodore Elkins coming out of the Sorbonne. This feeling is strengthened by the fact that the protagonists of A Case of Rape seem to be springing out of the background. In fact, the dividing line between character and background is not always clear and the reversal of the two can occur with a resultant surprise effect in a detective fiction where the story of the investigation is made gradually to uncover the story of the crime. Thus, the importance of Scott Hamilton and Elizabeth Hancock’s love affair on the Riviera, from the point of view of the art of fiction, is that it establishes the precedent for the detective story in which the denouement determines the order and causality of all that precedes.

2There is something more to be said about the functional significance of the surroundings. Chester Himes’s detective story is constructed of progressive and digressive elements which are at the same time concentrated and diffuse. It may not be true that life imitates art as Oscar Wilde suggested, but all literature takes colour from its social surroundings and at the same time imparts these surroundings a further element of meaning. In Chester Himes’s A Case of Rape, actualization of the virtual opens up the possibility for the reader to gradually unravel the hidden story of the crime –in other words, to find “the answer” (which is potentiality present in the formulated problems of the text). As suspense involves the experience of suspension with sequences that remain unfinished, negativity embraces both the question and the answer in the step-by-step process of inquiry. The need for the relief from tension, in the unresolved and therefore suspenful situation of this short detective story, is the condition that enables the reader to construct the meaning of the text on a question-and-answer basis.

3It is this writing process that endows the meaning of A Case of Rape with its unique quality. Chester Himes’s art of fiction does not consist in giving a determinate solution to the determinate problems posed. It is, rather, the transformation of events into the discovery of the cause. Meaning (such as derived from the exposure of racial prejudices) thus emerges as the reverse side of what the text of the detective story depicts: a white woman victimized and raped by black men. The world of the text appears in a state of alienation, and this alienation effect indicates that meaning is potentially there. As a consequence, meaning coincides with the emergence of the reverse side of the represented world (the mysterious murder of a white American woman supposedly abused by American blacks in her hotel room, rue Cujas in the Latin Quarter). Here we see the twofold structure of negativity (embodied in violence and racism). It is noteworthy in this connection that Chester Himes’s art of writing is linked to the calculation of effects of suspense –mainly the suspense derived from the repeated postponement of the resolution of rival investigations. This constitutes a narrative device of “retardation on the level of the action” which Viktor Shklovsky refers to as “the fundamental law of peripeteia [...] the breaking of recognition” (Shklovsky 1973, 48).

4In addition to this, another device employed in A Case of Rape is related to the story’s structure. We observe that in the process of telling one tale, Himes’s detective story uncovers another tale. While Himes purports to narrate the course of an investigation, the conspicuous story of the investigation gradually reveals the hidden story of the crime. In short, the initial crime on which the tale of detection is predicated can be considered as an end as well as a beginning in so far as it brings the hidden story –that of the events that have led to Mrs. Hancock’s death– to a close at the same time as it initiates another story, namely the process of uncovering the cause of the crime. This narrative technique is reminiscent of what can be read in Raymond Chandler’s notes about the detective story:

5In its essence the crime story is simple. It consists of two stories. One is known only to the criminal and to the author himself. It is usually simple, consisting chiefly of the commission of a murder and the criminal’s attempts to cover up after it.... The other story is the story which is told. It is capable of great elaboration and should, when finished, be complete in itself. It is necessary, however, to connect the two stories throughout the book. This is done by allowing a bit, here and there, of the hidden story to appear. (MacShane 1976, 42)

6In A Case of Rape, as in traditional detective novels, the readers are faced with the repeated postponement of the apparent approach to a solution. What, then, makes Himes’s own story distinct from other similar forms of literature? As a matter of fact, the character-and-background relationship is a basic structure in A Case of Rape by means of which the strategies of the text produce a tension that sets off a series of different actions and interactions. What is combined within the text is a whole system of perspectives that include the narrator’s and the characters’as well as that of the plot, and the one marked out for the reader. All of these are subtly interwoven, offering a constantly shifting constellation of views. Indeed, as perspectives are continually interweaving and interacting, it is not possible readers to embrace all perspectives at once, and so the view they are taken with at any one particular moment is what constitutes for them the temporary ‘theme’of the detective story. Now the several views are not purely optional. Clues have to be provided and it is necessary for readers to draw from them rational and inevitable conclusions to get the ‘right’ perspective, that is to say the one intended by Chester Himes. Thus, while getting concerned with the conducts of Elizabeth Hancock and Scott Hamilton, readers are gradually conditioned by the horizon of past attitudes toward the main protagonists, whether it be from the point of view of the narrator, from that of the other characters, or from that of the plot. The main question is therefore to know how readers can cope with the simultaneous contexts since any conclusion reached purely by instinct, or through accident, would show a failure on the part of Chester Himes, the author, and be unfair to his readers.

7What we have, in A Case of Rape, is, in fact, context within context. For instance, we come across a white woman with four black men in a small hotel room in the midst of the Latin Quarter, in the Paris area, in France, in Europe –which suggests hypotheses regarding the value system of places where race relations develop freely. Each context has therefore the quality of hermetic language, that is a language that can be decoded and known. In the elaboration of this process, however, the reader builds up a sense that there are loan words, as well as a grammar of juxtaposed, third person sentences conveying feelings of impersonality. A description of these becomes the formal definition of a system contrived to baffle the reader. That is why Himes’s influence on the direction taken by the detective story is important with respect to the narrator’s’s ideological conception of literature and its function. His own aesthetics is clearly a combination of philosophic idealism and a hostility to racist attitudes in all spheres. The main interest of Himes’s crime story is undoubtedly that it derives from a realist’s concern to explore the circumstances of less than average life as well as the preoccupations with the dark side of the soul without forgetting the ironic matter-of-factness linking the effects of suspense to the step-by-step process of rational enquiry. How, then, are facts made relevant for the dynamic interaction between text and reader that occurs during the reading process?

8The communicatory process, that occurs in the transfer of the text to the reader, is initiated by the text that establishes itself as a correlative in the reader’s consciousness, in so far as it offers a frame within which the reader must construct for himself a structured act of comprehension. Thus, we can observe in A Case of Rape that the syntactic units of sentences include a repeated use of passive forms to refer to the protagonists’ actions. Impersonal constructions are used to indicate what befalls the various characters, together with verbs denoting some kind of perception (“hear, see, feel, know”) which reflect the scrutinizing process of the inquiry. As to passages in reported speech, they provide complementary details about the protagonists. All of these units are juxtaposed without any real interpenetration within a uniform, third-person narrative contributing thereby to heighten the impersonal tone of the text through the introduction of a mood of deliberate coldness. The accumulation of short, precise, unemotional, almost “scientific” remarks looks like a product of ‘collage-montage’ reinforcing the effect of puzzlement as the main object of the book. Somehow, sentences, though set side by side, go in diverse ways to form semantic units of a higher order, exhibiting structures whose components are: the investigation initiated into the crime, the speeches for the defense or the accusation, the verdict returned, the sentencing, the fourth power, Roger Garrison the investigator, Roger Garrison’s discovery, Roger Garrison’s mistake, Scott and Elisabeth, the missing proof and the strange fruit of fear. From these structures arises such entity as a scientific, almost “surgical” approach of the detective story. By the same token, finite verbs constitute not only states of affairs which correspond to the individual sentences but also whole systems of very diverse types of states of affairs. Among these we can distinguish, first, concrete situations such as the fight in the small hotel room, rue Cujas, reported by two French witnesses Gérard Roussel and Suzanne Bovy. Then we grasp complex processes involving objects, with the use of a bottle containing cantharide powder mistaken for a bottle of sherry. This is followed successively by agreements and conflicts. While the sequence where Mrs. Hancock and Scott Hamilton are sympathizing on board the “Liberty” introduces a certain degree of stability, Mrs. Hancock’s suspicions concerning Scott Hamilton’s treacherous letter to her editor represent a revelation that leads Chester Himes to uncover the inherent social dispositions of his characters. We are therefore tempted to agree with Roland Barthes when he argues that a literary work is essentially paradoxical because it forms a solid, irreducible nucleus in the unresolved tangle of events, conditions, and collective mentality (Barthes 1967, 74). Finally, a whole world of related events is created with variously determined elements since the third-person narrative is told by an omniscient narrator or by witnesses through their reported testimonies. But, considering that the various sequences stand out as hermetic, impersonal units of scientifically observed facts, the whole stock of sequences that are juxtaposed and not narrrowly interconnected constitutes the portrayed world of the work, that is to say a scientifically observed world, carved out in the raw with surgical precision, then laid out bare.

9If the progression/digression dichotomy is to be considered, it is clear that the key device employed by Chester Himes in the production of suspense is the logico-temporal gap between the crime and its solution due to the digressive elements, including blocking figures such as Roger Garrison the investigator, Gérard Rousel and Suzanne Bovy the confused witnesses, or the false black criminals that impede progress toward a solution. Our principal interest will be with the pattern form of A Case of Rape as a detective story and Chester Himes’s use of dialectical irony in the disclosing of his ideological choices. If we consider as a decisive point that the puzzle element is vital to the detective story, we must first focus on Chester Himes’s process of posing a mystery to be solved, then on his art of giving insight into the reality that his detective story simulates.

10The work of Chester Himes is of three different kinds. Not only has he retained the puzzle element (as have Patricia Highsmith, John Bingham, Nicolas Freeling and Shelley Smith), but he also uses the crime story to investigate human personality while being concerned with expressing an attitude toward society (like Margot Bennett, Ross Macdonald, Friedrich Dürenmatt and PeterWalhoo). But beyond these divisions, Chester Himes has deliberately chosen to use the crime story as a way of expressing his characters’ insights. Beautifully composed, A Case of Rape might serve as a model of how little rather than how much violence is needed as an ingredient in a successful crime story. Scott Hamilton, its central character, the victim’s former friend and lover, is both hunter and hunted. The question that holds our attention from the first chapter is what will happen to this innocent man. Chester Himes presents us with a plausible criminal situation that is built up to a climax of excitement (the orgiastic use of aphrodisiac cantharide powder ending up in the supposed collective rape of a white woman in her hotel room by black men she had befriended). Chester Himes presents us with a sexual tangle which looks straightforward. And then, in the last few pages, the narrator shakes the kaleidoscope in order to show us an entirely different pattern from the one we had been so busily interpreting.

11As with A Case of Rape Chester Himes has created a book in which he attempts to explore the springs of crime, we might say that what absorbs him is to show the violence that lives behind the bland faces people present to the world. His point is clearly that anything that dehumanizes people is primitive and that the racial attitudes of society are symptoms of a dehumanized culture. It is in the area of sexual relationships that the theme of this detective story makes its greatest impact. Elizabeth Hancock and Scott Hamilton perceive one another as projections of their own desires and terrors. Besides, the two of them are both muddled and distressed about their own identities. One of the striking features of Chester Himes’s detective story is the way he combines the portrayal of character with the story of the investigation.

12In fact, Chester Himes’s manner does not merely consist in working back from effect to cause, from trial and sentencing to crime, that is to say from the judicial decision to the original social disruption, but in arousing in the reader the desire to unravel the threads of an enigma, to move beyond the prototypical figure of the black rapist and the sexually aroused white woman so as to derive from the passages of dialectical and rhetorical irony a need to know more. We can refer, for instance, to the passages about the alleged worldwide repercussions in the international Press of the case of the collective rape of a white woman by four black men. Himes’s ambiguous statement about the interest of the international Press is made with the implication that readers are free to interpret its meaning in a sense opposite to the one “conventionally” stated in the text.

13As a structure, the text of A Case of Rape requires that its perspectives be continually related to one another. But although the perspectives follow on in a strict sequence, the narration is fragmented. Segments of character perspectives are set up against each other leaving readers to imagine the linkup for themselves and to establish connections, not just between segments of different perspectives, but also between segments of the same perspective. Some of these segments appear to be utterly unrelated and may even come into conflict with one another. The very fact that perspectives on the crime story are given to the reader’s wandering view-point in segments is an indication that a process of combination is required and that the necessary coherence of the text is to be implemented by the reader’s act of ideation.

14A question arises. How is the reader to describe the connection between the various sequences as the construction of the story moves backwards? It must be recalled that A Case of Rape contains the important subplot of the interrupted love affair of Elizabeth Hancock and Scott Hamilton. Besides, although devised as an independent unit, each sequence can achieve its end only by aiming at something beyond itself. The fulfillment, however, takes place not in the text but in the readers’ minds as they are the ones who must activate the interplay of the sequences pre-structured by their juxtaposition. Now, it is through their juxtaposition and the backward pattern it creates that these sequences set in motion a process that will lead to the formation of an ideological view-point.

15What is more, distance is at the heart of Chester Himes’s aesthetic construction of A Case of Rape and of his ideological perception. But we had better refer to di-stance, a two-dimensional mode of perception, an ontological standing apart from conventional categories. Chester Himes reaches out to the reader by raising a sheaf of intellectual issues meant to disturb and puzzle, such as: How does one account for human motives of action? How does one know the self? The other? By drawing such questions out of the vernacular experiences of both white and black characters, Chester Himes manages to show the universality of blackness. We could even suggest that the detective story serves as a lure to all readers in order to introduce a lesson focused on the disjunction about the way things are and the way they should be.

16In A Case of Rape the pattern form of the detective story is laid down flat. Due to the story’s two-dimensional mode of perception, everything in this mystery is at once infinitely close and infinitely remote. The closeness conveyed by the abundance and the precision of the details concerning the characters’ physical appearances as well as material and cultural backgrounds lends unity and presence to the text, whereas, on the other hand, the remoteness derived from a panoramic overview provided by the formal succession of sequences emphasizes the objective features of the experience and the impersonality of the narration in the step-by-step process of the inquiry which is devised to close the logico-temporal gap that separates the present of the discovery of Elizabeth Hancock’s death from the past that prepared it. With the purpose of understanding the why of Mrs. Hancock’s death, of unraveling the hidden story of the rape, Chester Himes reveals the effects of the crime before reaching a statement of its causes. Distance and defamiliarization are combined in a deliberately sketchy narration turned into a faulty explanation. And, indeed, Chester Himes is bent on explaining facts far more than on describing the reality which is seen behind a mask.

17The impersonality of the tone is by no means non-participation. This very short detective story is close to an archetypal fable describing the social reality of racism and racial stereotypes. The text is structured by explanations about each character’s past life in such a way that it allows for and, indeed, frequently runs counter to the disposition of the readers who are waiting for fundamental moves. The blanks in the explanations break up the continuity of the different stages of the narration. And thus, in this short story constructed of progressive and digressive elements the blanks marshal selected perspective segments into a fragmented, counter-factual, contrastive or telescoped sequence, nullifying any expectation of good continuation. As a result, the imagination is automatically mobilized, thus increasing the activity of the reader who cannot help but try and supply the missing links that might bring the mystery to a dénouement. The blanks impeding or slowing down the progression of the enquiry generate images built up by the reader –such as Elizabeth Hancock basking in Scott Hamilton’s love while they were living at the Trayas, a little village in the south of France, then Elizabeth and Scott shut up in a quiet flat near Hampstead Heath in London, keeping away from people, or again Elizabeth and Scott overcome by the crowd in Majorca, eventually running short of money and, finally, the misunderstanding between the two lovers when Scott decides to resort to his wife for financial help, unaware of the fact that Elizabeth was in no way looking for financial security. Her love affair with Scott meant for her the sweetness of a moral shelter she had been longing for, forgetfulness and peace, the shutting out of despair.

18The various blanks in the progression of the intra-story investigation generate a number of different images –images that cannot be synthesized into a sequence but have to be continually abandoned the moment the reader is forced by the staccato rhythm of the story to produce a new one. The reader reacts to an image by building another more comprehensive image. When evoking Elizabeth Hancock, we can say that images follow one another. Thus, the image of the neurotic, temperamental woman gives way to that of the underdog, the vulnerable being hurt by men’s pride, defeated by life. In this process lies the frill relevance of the use of blanks in A Case of Rape. By suspending conventional narrative continuity, blanks play a vital role in image-building, a role whose intensity derives from the fact that images are formed only to vanish. In this sense, we might say that in A Case of Rape the gaps in the flood of explanations provided by the omniscient narrator give rise to images of the first and second degree. Second degree images are those in which we react to the images we have formed. The process may become clearer if we illustrate it with examples. The first image of Elizabeth Hancock that arises in the reader’s mind in the first chapter –or at the fist stage of the detective story– is that of an ambiguous character, a fragile woman no doubt, but maybe a woman of loose morals, considering she has gone up to a small hotel room with four men. Then another image emerges as the investigation moves ahead: it is that of a sex-hungry woman –next superseded by the image of a smart intellectual New Englander. Two other images later arise in succession: that of a neurotic American woman, followed by that of a shy lover eager to find shelter for her sweet romantic love. Instability reigns as the latter image soon gives way to that of the sex-hungry woman, before the reader is led back to the image of the vulnerable woman, society’s victim. By suspending narrative continuity, the gaps create clashing images. By so doing, they help to hinder but also to stimulate the process of image building.

19It then becomes clear that Chester Himes transcends the murder mystery genre. Ideology molds the text into a sociological analysis of a world both unsound and unsure. How does the ideological view-point fit in? It is clear that the chief elements of this structuring activity are the (reader-built) links –or contradictions– between the observer’s point of view and those of the people on whom he reports. In this third-person narrative where Chester Himes assumes authorial omniscience, his commands of the characters’ thoughts and actions allow him to create material suitable to the manner in which he wants to denounce all forms of prejudice. It may be black people’s prejudices when dark-skinned Ted Elkins holds out the lethal drink to Elizabeth Hancock because he resents the attention she pays to light-skinned Scott Hamilton. It may also be white people’s prejudices when, after Elizabeth Hancock’s rape and violent death, the four black men she had befriended become, at once, the most convenient suspects. What is to be emphasized is that Chester Himes’s contrast of perspectives, his use of his characters’ backgrounds and past lives in order to illustrate their personalities, gives a wider scope to his ideological stand.

20Chester Himes’s art as a detective story-teller obviously consists in promoting suspense out of a variety of narrative devices foreshadowing and postponing the denouement. But there is more to A Case of Rape than suspense. What sets this crime story apart is its ideological stand reminiscent of Himes’s autobiographical novel The Third Generation, a novel that is “more interesting as a psychological study than as a finished work of fiction” (Margolies 1968, 88).

21Reading a detective story is primarily an activity of decipherment and discovery. What are, then, Chester Himes’s crime story’s secrets? In A Case of Rape, a detective story in black and white, the blame is not to be laid either on blacks or on whites but on all men with this still unanswered question: If one of us is victimized by society, don’t we all share the blame?


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, 1967. Système de la mode. Paris: Seuil.

Himes, Chester, 1962. A Case of Rape. New York: Dell.

—. Une affaire de viol. TF, 1999. Françoise Clary et Michel Fabre, Paris: André Dimanche.

—. The Third Generation, 1954. New York: Signet.

MacShane, Frank, ed., 1976. The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler. London: Weinfeld and Nicolson.

Margolies, Edward, 1968. Native Sons. New York: Lippincott.

Shklovsky, Viktor, 1919. “The Connection between Devices of Syurhet Construction and General Stylistic Devices,” in Stephen Bann and John E. Bowet, edrs., 1973. Russian Formalism: A Collection of Articles and Texts in Translation. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.


Professor at Université de Rouen. A contributor to American Literary Scholarship (Duke University), she is the author of L’Espoir de vivre, a study of the African American novel from Chester Himes to Hal Bennett, of Jean Toomer, a close study of Cane, of various articles on African American literature, racial Christianity, African American Islam and Affirmative Action. She has edited Black American Stories. She is a co-editor with Claude Julien of Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance and, with Michel Fabre, of a new translation of Himes’s A Case of Rape.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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