If you were reading dark crime fiction in the nineteen eighties, then it’s almost certain that you remember Black Lizard books or maybe even Njami Simon. Barry Gifford founded and edited the line, which ran from 1984 to 1990. During this period, Black Lizard put out over 90 books, and the line specialized in reprinting noir and hardboiled fiction from the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
Among the writers they published: David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Dan J. Marlowe, Paul Cain, Charles Williams, W.L. Heath, and Harry Whittington. Black Lizard is credited, and rightly so, with sparking the Jim Thompson revival. When Thompson died, in 1977, all his books were out of print in the United States.
It’s Black Lizard that brought them back, and at this point, you’re unlikely to find a roman noir fan who doesn’t claim Thompson as a favorite author. I know I found Thompson through Black Lizard (though not The Killer Inside Me, which I read in the late 1980’s in a William Morrow edition), and I won’t ever forget the revelation I experienced tearing through a number of Thompson’s books in a binge that lasted several weeks.
I was living and studying in Martinique, circa 1988-1989, and I’d taken there with me a stack of Thompson’s novels. I had plenty of free time, rum at my side, and a shaded balcony to read on. If you want a picture of reading bliss, this is it. And, of course, I still have those Thompson Black Lizards on my shelves, as well as the other Black Lizards I bought during that six-year run, stuff by Goodis, Willeford, and company.
Eventually, Random House swallowed Black Lizard and combined it with Vintage Crime to create the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard line. The mass-market, trashy look that the first Black Lizards had became a prestigious trade paperback look, and with the exception of the Thompson books, most of the Black Lizard catalogue fell out of print.
I was living and studying in Martinique, circa 1988-1989, and I’d taken there with me a stack of Thompson’s novels. I had plenty of free time, rum at my side, and a shaded balcony to read on.
Mixed in with their reissues, Black Lizard did release a few original novels. Among them was Barry Gifford’s Port Tropique, a short impressionistic book about a weapons smuggler in Central America, a work that combines a noir sensibility with the feel of Joseph Conrad. Jim Nisbett and Bill Pronzini also had new books published by Black Lizard.
Nearly all the line’s books, old or first run, were by English language writers, and of the two books that were translated – each from French – one dated from 1928, Francis Carco’s tale of sexual despair in the Paris underworld, Perversity. The other translation was new, and this is the book I intend to get into here – Coffin & Co., by Njami Simon.
It came out in France in 1985 as Cercueil & Cie, and Black Lizard published it in the United States two years later. I picked it up in bookstores and looked it over and considered buying it back then, but for some reason, I never did purchase it. I didn’t until recently, that is, and what a surprise the book turned out to be. Coffin & Co. is a crime novel I think I can accurately call a too little-known gem.
Here’s the set-up: In 1980’s Harlem, two ordinary black detectives, W. Jones Dubois and Ed Smith, have convinced their colleagues that the Chester Himes novels featuring Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are based on their exploits. Himes has used their long careers as inspiration for his fiction.
Dubois and Smith have achieved a legendary status in Harlem, and now, newly retired, both men bask in the knowledge that they will achieve a certain immortality through the novels Himes wrote. They are pleased with themselves. But then they find out from someone they know that Himes has just published a novel in which he kills off his two famous cops.
This terrifies Dubois and Smith, shakes the very foundation of their world. As they see it, nothing less than reality is “taking its revenge, coming to claim its due. The usurped titles, the borrowed risks, the myth of two extraordinary lives, had to be restored to the fiction from which they had departed…Admitting to the death of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones would be to admit to their own disappearance.
If Himes buried them before their time, they no longer preceded history and would be revealed for the plagiarists they were. They could not conceive of an existence where mockeries flowed freely from the mouths of punks, whores, and junkies, a world wherein they commanded no respect.”
One thing gives the companions hope. They discover that the book in question has only come out in French so far, which means that virtually no one in Harlem is likely to read it. They realize that they can go to France and talk to Himes, convince the great writer not to have his newest opus published in the US in English.
But when they finally get to the man, in Spain, where they have learned he is living, they find him lying on his deathbed. They can’t bring themselves to make their request. Himes dies, and the two men are left adrift, strangers in Europe but not eager to return to New York.
As I say, this is merely the set-up. Himes dies about a third of the way through the novel. Alternating with the Smith and Dubois chapters have been chapters about Amos Yegba, a Cameroonian born journalist living in Paris, and he has gotten drawn into the mystery of a man named Maktar Diop, half Senegalese, half Malian, who has died in mysterious circumstances in the 10th Arrondissement.
Yegba moves in a world of African exiles – people from Francophone countries such as Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, Zaire, Ivory Coast – and the reader begins to get a picture of black life in Paris, something quite different than black life, say, in Harlem. What started as an amusing metafictional take on the Chester Himes Harlem series morphs into a different book, and Njami Simon’s real intentions emerge. Coffin &. Co. is a crime novel that uses its plot to analyse African Francophone life in France, specifically Paris.
“Despite the fact that everyone traveled in different circles, with different white friends and different co-workers, there were certain meeting places for Africans in Paris. This was where you heard news from home or ate African food. The one good thing about exile was that it strengthened bonds which might not have existed back in Africa.
The simple fact of being black and African created affinities which gave an illusion of strength to these poor devils abandoned in the turbulence of Paris. You were not alone. You recreated family structures modeled on those you had left behind. Paradoxically, it was only away from home that Africans formed a real nation. In Paris, Congolese, Ivorians, Cameroonians and Senegalese considered themselves brothers from the same country. African unity could only exist outside the frontier, in reaction to the surrounding hostilities.”
The simple fact of being black and African created affinities which gave an illusion of strength to these poor devils abandoned in the turbulence of Paris. You were not alone. You recreated family structures modeled on those you had left behind.
Back in Paris after their visit to Spain, Dubois and Smith intersect with Yegba, and they wind up helping him investigate the ever-widening mystery that began with Maktar Diop’s death. Different levels of action and meaning result. On the one hand, we have the novel’s plot, full of mayhem and passions and humor; on the other, there is a tacit dialogue that Njami Simon has with Chester Himes.
Simon, born in Lausanne, Switzerland to Cameroonian parents, establishes a constant and amusing interplay with his forebear. He paces the book like a Himes novel, fast and furious, and where Himes, an expatriate in France, wrote about an imagined, outrageous Harlem, Simon re-imagines Himes’ two characters and moves them to a Paris rife with immigrant intrigue and violence.
Overall, Dubois and Smith like the French city, but as Americans who for years were “appointed to maintain order where whites had imprisoned blacks”, they have interesting thoughts on how they see blacks relating to whites in this other place:
“He tried comparing Paris to New York, the people there with the people here. All these white men and women kissing black men and women caused him great discomfort. Malcolm X had said, “When you put a drop of milk in your coffee, the coffee becomes weaker. These Paris blacks reminded him of bad coffee.
They were blind people who didn’t realize that they were losers trying to screw the whites with their fast talk. They collected a few smiles, no doubt managed to pick up one or two of those girls who were hanging on their arm, but afterword they were left to drown in their own shit.
In Harlem, this sly old fox had learned to distrust anything that was white, like an unripe peach. The pastors, the politicians, the women…even the cops. He knew where everything belonged and this was good. In France there were too many white things offered to blacks.”
Not that, as African-Americans, Dubois and Smith are any higher on Africa itself. In Smith’s words, “We are Americans, pal. Whether you like it or not, and there’s a good chance that our father’s fathers were sold into slavery centuries ago by your fathers’ fathers…Africa let us down, brother. Don’t ever forget that. Ever.”
African-Americans, Francophone Africans, history, exile, black diaspora, white-black relations, marginalization, metafictional high jinks – Njami Simon packs a lot into these 195 pages. He tackles the concept of Africa and how that differs for those from Africa or those not from Africa, and he explores a kind of geographical continuum that runs from the “Harlem River to the Congo.” That he does all this while telling a frenetic plot driven story told in Serie noire style is impressive.
I don’t know what drew the Black Lizard team’s attention to this book to make it the one original in their series they translated from a non-English language. And I have no idea how well it sold in the United States. But it’s fitting, perhaps, that Black Lizard did choose Coffin & Co., because translation lies at the heart of an irony central to the novel’s story.
The Himes book that Dubois and Smith get upset to hear about is unnamed in Coffin & Co., but it has to be Plan B. The last volume in the Harlem Detective series, this is the book in which Himes kills Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Though left unfinished at his death, Plan B came out in France from Editions Lieu Commun in 1983.
That’s two years before Njami’s novel was published in France – by Lieu Commun. As critic Pim Higginson remarks in The Noir Atlantic: Chester Himes and the Birth of the Francophone African Crime Novel (see here), the irony of Njami’s book is that it took so long for Plan B to reach the United States in English, it’s as if Dubois and Smith’s plan to stop it from reaching their home country worked.
Complications of all sorts delayed Plan B’s American publication till 1993, not only eight years after Coffin & Co. appeared in France, but six years after the Black Lizard translation of his work hit American shelves. I’d be surprised if Njami Simon didn’t chuckle about that.