Grave Digger Jones

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Is the constant partner of Coffin Ed Johnson in the detective novels of Chester Himes. Though the two African American detectives are very much alike, Grave Digger is often the more philosophical of the two, and he frequently acts as spokesperson for the pair. It is Grave Digger who offers most of Himes's commentary on U.S. racism and on the plight of urban African Americans living in poverty-stricken ghettos. Though Grave Digger is usually portrayed as the more rational of the two detectives, he can be brutal in his investigative tactics. His gun, a custom-made long-barreled nickel-plated .38, is feared by all Harlemites inhabiting Himes's novels. Paradoxically, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger have hero/legend status among the citizens of their beat even though they work for a white-dominated police force and therefore are seen by many as upholding a white power structure that oppresses African Americans.

Grave Digger's comments throughout the novels show that the two detectives are keenly aware of the racial politics of police work in urban America. In several of the books, the arch criminal is a white man who is not a member of the Harlem community but who has entered the neighborhood to exploit its citizens. In such cases Grave Digger and Coffin Ed's ultimate aim is to restore order and protect the Harlem community from further invasion by the white police force. It is this double-edged nature of their characters, at once protectors and violent enforcers, that makes them complex literary creations.

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

— Wendy W. Walters

Subjects: Literature.

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