May 9, 2007
I recommend to readers of detective stories a novel I consider a classic of the genre and which I have included in my canon of Black detective/crime fiction. THE CONJURE-MAN DIES: A MYSTERY TALE OF DARK HARLEM by Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934) is the story of African mysticism and murder in Harlem. Fisher was a major literary figure in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and early 1930s. During his short career, he wrote only two novels, THE WALLS OF JERICHO and THE CONJURE-MAN DIES. At the time, THE CONJURE MAN DIES was the only detective novel written by a Black American.
THE CONJURE MAN DIES should be canonized because Fisher shows that he was a master of the closed-door type mystery and because of his use of African culture and Black American characters and culture. THE CONJURE MAN DIES, however, is not a social document demonstrating Black folks could write novels. It is a good story well told.
THE CONJURE-MAN DIES is the classic closed-door mystery. Frimbo, an African fortune-teller, is found dead in his office but reappears later very much alive and helps New York police detective, Perry Dart, and Dr. John Archer, M. D., who also helps Dart, identify the victim and trap the murderer. To the classical detective story formula, Fisher adds the milieu of the Black community of Harlem, Black detectives, an African victim, and African and Black American cultures.
Fisher also goes against the classic conflict between the amateur and the police detectives. Dart and Archer are the Holmes and Watson of Harlem. In their relationship, neither Dart nor Dr. Archer is superior to the other. Both think logically. But Dart thinks like a detective, speculating much of the time, while Dr. Archer has a scientific mind and is more cautious in his observations and conclusions. He wants scientific proof.
Frimbo, a tribal Chief in his home country of Liberia, was the intended victim but his servant, who, to protect the Chief, often took his place, was murdered instead. In helping Dart and Dr. Archer, Frimbo becomes the third detective, putting his life in danger. Dr. Archer describes Frimbo as “’a native African, a Harvard graduate, a student of philosophy—and a sorcerer.’” Fisher explores African culture and philosophy through interesting philosophical discussions between Frimbo and Dr. Archer, who dislikes Frimbo because of his superior attitude.
Bubber Brown, a streetwise Harlemite and would-be detective, adds the comic to the story and is instrumental in helping solve the crime. He is a misdirection character who lightens the gothic atmosphere and leads the reader through the dark Harlem underworld, which adds two gangsters to the most likely suspect list because of their relations with Frimbo. Bubber joins the search for the killer in order to clear the name of his friend Jinx from the list.
“Dark Harlem” in the title suggests a gothic atmosphere. Where in Harlem can such atmosphere be found? How about a funeral home full of dead bodies? Frimbo’s office is in the same building as the funeral home. His seemingly mystical ability to tell the fortunes of the middle class Harlemites who visit him and the necessary examination of the dead bodies when the original murder victim disappears creates gothic atmosphere Harlem style.
If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories, you will enjoy THE CONJURE-MAN DIES: A MYSTERY TALE OF DARK HARLEM. I wish Fisher had written more novels about his two Harlem detectives Perry Dart and Dr. John Archer and at least one novel about detective Bubber Brown.