Coffin Ed Johnson

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Chester Himes (1909—1984)


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Makes up half of Chester Himes's two-man African American detective team. Coffin Ed and his partner Grave Digger Jones almost always act in tandem, and rarely is one seen without the other throughout Himes's nine-book series of detective novels. Like his partner, Coffin Ed is a middle-class workingman who lives in Astoria, Long Island. Each day he and Grave Digger drive together to Harlem, their regular beat as detectives. Leaving behind their stable, yet rarely mentioned, family lives with wives and children, they step daily into the chaotic pandemonium of Himes's Harlem.

Violence is a relentless part of the two detectives’ jobs, indeed of the whole urban environment as created by Himes. Coffin Ed, in fact, suffers a brutal brush with the daily violence of his job: in For Love of Imabelle (1957), Himes's first Harlem crime novel, a villain throws acid in Coffin Ed's face. This vicious attack scars the detective both physically and emotionally for the rest of the series. Coffin Ed's acid-scarred face is often described in grotesque and frightening terms and comes to represent the potential terror he himself could unleash. As a result of this incident, Ed is known to be very quick to the trigger and subject to extremely violent rages when interrogating suspected criminals. This is one of the few characteristics that distinguishes him from his partner, Grave Digger. Grave Digger often acts as the restraining voice or hand when Ed seems close to the edge of excessive force.

Robert E. Skinner, Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes, 1989.

Wendy W. Walters

Subjects: Literature.

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