Early in his 1985 novel Cercueil et Cie. (Coffin and Co.), the Cameroonian writer Simon Njami introduces two protagonists, the Harlem police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Their names sound familiar; indeed, as the story goes, Njami's detectives have been posing for nearly thirty years as the real-life sources for the characters in novels by another author, the expatriate African American writer Chester Himes, whose Harlem crime thrillers began appearing in France in 1957 for the renowned Série noire at Gallimard. Njami's characters are of course impostors, appropriating Himes's radically absurd fiction as thinly veiled documentary biography. The premise of their scam was a timely one: by the early 1980s, Himes's iconic characters had entered into rocky imaginative territory. Himes, their creator, died in 1984 after a series of strokes. Yet rather than setting his detectives loose upon the world, so to speak, his...

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