Chester Himes began his writing career while serving a sentence in an Ohio prison for armed robbery, from the late 1920s to mid 1930s. He published several short stories, using his prison number as his pen name. He continued to write after his parole in 1936, working odd jobs to support himself. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a screenwriter and novelist. Himes later wrote about the racism he experienced in Los Angeles:
Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.
In the 1950s, Himes emigrated to France, joining a number of African American writers and artists who left the United States seeking greater freedom and acceptance. He lived in France until 1969, when he moved to Moraira, Spain. He remained in Spain until his death in 1984.
Himes was an extremely prolific writer whose works encompassed many genres. His Harlem Detective series, which comprised nine novels, brought him the most success. Three movies are based on the series: Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), its sequel, Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972) and A Rage in Harlem (1991).