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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Crazy Kill

cover image By: Himes, Chester (male)
Publisher: Avon (T-357)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 270: PS3515 .I713 C7 1959
Contributor: K. Dykstra, S. Hoffman


Era: 1950s Author as on Cover: Chester Himes Geographic Locale: New York, NY; Harlem Date of Publication: 1959  |  Original Date: 1959 Setting: urban; Himes includes occasional passages characterizing the area: "It was a street of paradox: unwed young mothers, suckling their infants, living on a prayer; fat black racketeers coasting past in big bright-colored convertibles with their solid gold babes, carrying huge sums of money on their person; hardworking men, holding up the buildings with their shoulders, talking in loud voices up there in Harlem where the white bosses couldn't hear them; teen-age gangsters grouping for a gang fight, smoking marijuana weed to get up their courage; everybody escaping the hotbox rooms they lived in, seeking respite in a street made hotter by the automobile exhaust and the heat released by the concrete walls and walks" (Chapter 10) Motives: jealousy, adultery, blackmail, murder

Plot Summary

A bizarre and complicated opening: while Big Joe Pullen's funeral is in progress, a theft is underway on the street below. Funeral guest Reverend Short leans out of an upstairs window to watch the theft, and then falls out of the window, landing in a basket of bread. Shortly after the Rev. Short returns to the funeral upstairs, Valentine Haines turns up dead, stabbed, in the same bread basket that had broken Rev. Short's fall. Much of the narrative that follows involves different characters suspecting and/or openly accusing each other. Meanwhile, the police visit informants around Harlem and try to obtain information from an exaggeratedly close-mouthed community. Suspicion tends to fall mostly on Dulcy Perry and on her husband, Johnny Perry, the gambler who runs the Tia Juana club.

Major Characters

Coffin Ed Johnson adult male, African-American, middle-aged, facial disfigurement, police detective

Grave Digger Jones adult male, African-American, 36 years old, big, police detective

Sergeant Brody adult male, tendency to blush when frustrated or confused, police officer from downtown Homicide

Johnny Perry "Four-Ace," "Fishtail," adult male, African-American, 46 years old, big, "slanting shoulders and long arms," graying hair, strong features, "in the center of his forehead was a puffed, bluish scar with ridges pronging off like immobilized octopus tentacles. It gave him an expression of perpetual rage, which was accentuated by the smoldering fire that lay always just beneath the surface of his muddy brown eyes." Runs Tia Juana gambling club.

Reverend Short adult male, African-American, middle-aged, bony face, gold-rimmed glasses, preacher

Dulcy Perry adult female, African-American, sultry, light-skinned, "round, seductive buttocks," a "brownskin blonde" with "short-cut orange-yellow curls framing the olive-brown complexion of her heart-shaped face," Johnny Perry's current wife, and secretly, Val's wife, former showgirl

Valentine Haines "Val," adult male, African-American, seen only after death, "a handsome face, with smooth brown skin and features bearing a close resemblance to Dulcy's. The head was bare, revealing curly black hair, thickly plastered with pomade." Secretly married to Dulcy, who let him live in the house as her "brother" because he's "no good"

"Chink" Charlie Dawson adult male, African-American, "a big yellow man, young but going to fat"

Alamena adult female, African-American, middle-aged, "she still cut a figure in the deep purple turtle-neck silk jersey dress she was wearing, but her eyes were the eyes of a woman who didn't care any more, Johnny Perry's ex-wife who hangs around the house, cleaning up and generally hoping that he will take her back some day

"Aunt" Mamie Pullen adult female, African-American, middle-aged, "old brown face, lined with grief and worry, sagging in loose folds beneath the tight knot of short, straightened, gray-streaked hair," widow of Big Joe Pullen



Level of Violence

Val's death by stabbing happens "offscreen," witnessed only by the murderer himself, so we wait until the final chapter to hear Reverend Short's account. At that point, the Reverend adopts what he believes to be a matter-of-fact tone: he has killed Val because it was divinely ordained. This is his reason, too, for stabbing Dulcy; we arrive at this scene with the police detectives to find "the bone handle of a knife....sticking straight up from the crevice between her breasts." By contrast, Chink's death, orchestrated by Dulcy, happens "onscreen." Johnny's rage is revealed in his actions: "He leaped across the floor and stomped Chink's dying bloody body with his bare feet until two of Chink's teeth were stuck into his calloused heel. After that he leaned over and clubbed Chink's head into a bloody pulp with his pistol butt. But he didn't know he had done it."


heterosexuality is the primary focus. The Reverend Short's actions are sometimes explained by Mamie Pullen and others as the result of his repressed attraction to Dulcy. Dulcy and Doll Baby are the centers of attraction in the novel, overall.

Gender Roles

the females in this novel, who include Mamie Pullen (Big Joe's widow), Alamena (Johnny's ex-wife), Dulcy (Johnny's current wife), and Doll Baby are identified more or less with specific men. Each of the women seems destined to follow a similar path: being seductive while young leads to marriage. The marriages seem strained, perhaps because of the criminal or barely-legal careers that accompany them. Dulcy was a showgirl before marriage. Jealousy motivates several plot twists, whether it's jealousy among men (e.g. Chink Charlie and Johnny, because of Dulcy), or jealousy among women (e.g. Dulcy and Baby Doll, because of Val). Johnny, whose anger may or may not be controlled, is the strongest male character. Overall, treatment of male characters is similar in this novel to other Himes novels. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, the police detectives, use violence as a tool. However, they do no seem to be idealized males. Himes' matter-of-fact tone suggests a certain distance from their characters. There do not seem to be any idealized characters, male or female, in this novel.


Sergeant Brody, the white police officer (probably Irish-American), tends to make remarks that reveal his prejudicial assumptions about African-Americans and the Harlem community as a whole. Sometimes Grave Digger and Coffin Ed set him straight with brief remarks; this is one of the primary reasons that Sgt. Brody blushes so often. Dulcy is the "yellow" woman in this novel, the relatively light-skinned mulata whom no one fully trusts and whose beauty draws the attention of more than one man, producing violence.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

alcohol is present in the opening scenes at Big Joe Pullen's funeral: "Ice cubes tinkled in eight-ounce glasses of bourbon whisky and ginger ale, black rum and Coca Cola, clear gin and tonic water. Everybody was drinking and eating. The food and liquor were free." As the guests become intoxicated, alcohol becomes part of the humor but also part of the danger. Suspense builds, until a man thought to be lying drunk in the street turns out to be Val's dead body. Ironically, the murderous Rev. Short, who claims at this point to be stone cold sober, will be carrying a bottle full of peach brandy and laudanum when he is interrogated at police headquarters. There is social drinking, drinking during crises, and consistent drinking -- all mixed together. In some ways, the generalized nature of the drinking makes it seem to be an accepted activity, but characters also warn each other against the consequences of continued drinking, and these warnings often prove to be correct. In Chapter 11, we see Gigolo, an informant for Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, whose drug use is so heavy that the detectives warn his supplier not to sell him so much heroin.

Law Enforcement

Grave Digger and Coffin, detectives with the New York Police Department, know full well that there is too much crime for them to attack it all. They concentrate on trying to solve the worst crimes, which generally means overlooking lesser crimes along the way.

Added Features

humor is paired with dark awareness of negative social conditions, much of which stems from poverty, but which are also influenced by naturalistic forces beyond the control of individual characters. Religion: Rev. Short's "viosions" seem to be markedly inauthentic, brought on either by alcohol and drugs or by his desire to point a finger at someone. See Chapter 9 for a scene in which his supposedly inspired preaching culminates in an accusation toward Dulcy: "I can hear him say, 'Oh, you sister of Cain, why slayest thou thy brother?'" Shortly after this accusation, the Holy Rollers (Short's congregation) fall to the floor, screaming about fornication. The menu at Fat's Down Home restaurant, featuring alligator tail and other specials can be found in Chapter 8.

Subject Headings

Detectives/ New York (N.Y.) - Harlem/ Murder/ African-Americans/ Theft/ Poverty/ African-Americans

Psychological Elements

combination of violence and humor, combined with frequently noted misery of the region, make this an uncomfortable narrative. It is undoubtedly entertaining, but its narrative is frequently affect-oriented and saturated with indirect (naturalistic) sociopolitical energies.