The Conjure-Man Dies: Rudolph Fisher and the First Black Detective Novel
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The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s marked an explosion of African-American art, literature and music. The movement incorporated a wide variety of styles and perspectives, but was characterized by its celebration of black identity and its highlighting of issues of race in urban North America. It was this movement that saw the rising success and fame of not only a Harlem Renaissance author, but a veritable Renaissance man, Rudolph Fisher. Fisher was one of the most iconic and acclaimed writers of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as being an accomplished musician and dramatist, a highly successful physician, and a pioneer in the field of radiology. His short stories and writing are emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance, capturing the landscape of Harlem at the time and the myriad of experiences found in black communities there. Fisher was particularly adept at capturing the voices and tones of Harlem’s inhabitants, whether they were the speech patterns of the wealthy and university-educated, or the idiosyncratic dialect of common speech, which Fisher termed “Harle-mese.” It’s this deft talent for language and tone that lends Fisher much of his distinctive comic style in his writing. Even among some of the sharpest writers of the time, Fisher was considered intimidatingly witty. Langston Hughes, himself renowned for his comic writing, said of him that he was "the wittiest of these New Negroes of Harlem, whose tongue was flavored with the sharpest and saltiest humor." Sadly, Fisher passed away aged just 37 due to an unknown stomach ailment. Although his life and writing was cut tragically short, Fisher still managed to leave behind a profound legacy both in medicine and literature.
Throughout his work, Fisher embraced the complex and delicate issues of race and class of the New York landscape that surrounded him. His first short story, City of Refuge, leads the reader into this world, describing the experiences of a newcomer, seeing the city and the Harlem neighbourhood for the first time. There are rivalries and violence, as well as issues of class and castes between black communities. Yet, throughout the portrayal of these complex themes, Fisher keeps his story vibrant and light through his tone and language. He captures the North Carolina drawl of his main character, King Solomon Gillis, in phrases such as “Wha’ dis hyeh at, please, suh?” as well as the Harlem turns of phrase, “This baby’s jess playin’ you for a sucker.” Fisher continued to explore the issues of class in his first novel The Walls of Jericho, but for his second novel Fisher took these themes and applied them to the popular detective mystery genre in his ground-breaking novel The Conjure-Man Dies.
Along with the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s and 1930s also saw the Golden Age of detective fiction, but this Golden Age was distinctly British and female in perspective, with the main figures including Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. There were a number of renowned American authors, including Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but despite the popularity of their hard boiled murder mysteries, the trend of detective novels at the time maintained a tendency towards British sleuths and manor house mysteries. It was into this arena that Fisher stepped, writing what is considered to be the first detective novel written by an African-American author. Written in 1932, the book would not have a successor until 1957 with Chester Himes’ Harlem Detective series. This, along with Fisher’s entirely African-American cast, means that The Conjure-Man Dies offers an almost unique perspective on the time and the genre.
The story centres on the death of N’Gana Frimbo, a Harlem conjure-man who collapses and dies in the middle of a consultation. Perry Dart, one of Harlem’s ten black police detectives is called in to investigate the crime and interrogate Frimbo’s various clients from that evening. The story cleverly plays with the classic locked-room mystery conventions, although we’ll steer clear of saying too much on that front for fear of spoiling the various enigmas and unexpected turns. Fisher spreads out his sleuthing among three characters, along with official investigator Dart there is the local physician Dr. Archer, and the enthusiastic, if bumbling, amateur detective Bubber Brown. Of the three, Dr. Archer shows the most Holmesian prowess, narrating his deductions, explaining his reasoning, and conducting experiments. It is through this character that Fisher brings his own medical expertise to the story. With his own background in science and medicine, Fisher employs a level of technical and scientific detail that was strikingly forward-thinking for its time, it evokes some of the more procedure-based murder dramas familiar to modern audiences. Fisher manages to keep these descriptions of experiments and scientific method from sounding dry, working them into the language of the narrative, and while some of the methods are now outdated, the approach gives the story a technical and realistic lens, while also providing a fascinating look at the science of the time.
Archer and Dart form a compelling partnership and friendship throughout the investigation. Unusually for detective novels, the duo are on fairly equal footing. Dart describes himself as “just a poor boy trying to make a living,” but shows himself to be as sharp as his name implies. He brings a level of keen observation and deft skill in handling the interrogations of his motley crew of suspects, wrangling confessions and exposing lies. Despite the combined knowledge and skill of these two professionals, the investigation also relies on the help of the very amateur detective skills of Bubber Brown. Brown’s main talent seems to be blundering from one disaster to another, with an occasional stroke of luck, genius, or both. That Fisher gives room for all three of these characters to collaborate and attempt to uncover the mystery gives the story a charming variety. There’s a real joy in the character’s various interactions in this book, stemming largely from Fisher’s skill with dialogue. One of the best examples of dialogue in the book is between Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins and their antagonistic friendship, their conversations a constant stream of interruptions and insults, such as when Brown attempts to relay a story about seeing death on the moon,
‘And then all of a sudden I stopped. I store.’ ‘You whiched?’ ‘Store. I stopped and I store.’ ‘What language you talkin’?’ ‘I store at the sky. And as I stood there starin’, sump’m didn’t seem right. Then I seen what it was. Y’ see, they was a full moon in the sky--’ ‘Funny place for a full moon wasn’t it?’
Their friendship of nagging and jibing is immediately relatable and endlessly funny. Fisher not only captures the dialect and accent but he also captures that sense of conversational familiarity and friendly raillery. The humor is not reserved for these characters however, it reaches into all aspects of the book, particularly in the narrative voice. In setting the scene, Fisher describes the story’s climactic day,
With an unquestionable sense of humour, the sun grinned down upon the proud pageantry of Seventh Avenue’s Sunday noontime, beaming just a little more brightly and warmly than was strictly necessary for a day in February.
Fisher’s descriptions of the New York landscape are lovingly familiar. It is no surprise that the full title of the novel reads The Conjure-Man Dies, A Harlem Mystery. Fisher’s book presents a vivid picture of Harlem’s diverse landscape and the variety of life to be found there. It is worth noting that Fisher’s first novel The Walls of Jericho was written in response to a friend’s challenge to craft a story that treated the upper and lower classes of black Harlem with equal sympathy. This tendency to traverse social groupings is also evident in The Conjure-Man Dies. Within the microcosm of this particular case, the characters range in education, profession, status, and class. The mysteriously regal conjure-man Frimbo has his consultation rooms in the same house as that of a sturdy middle-class undertaker. He lives opposite the street from a well-respected doctor, and his clients include hustlers, drug addicts, and devout Christian housewives. On the surrounding streets you can find theatres and diners, police stations and speakeasies. Fisher’s Harlem has a vibrancy and a variety that are hard not to fall in love with. While there were other authors of the Harlem Renaissance who are remembered better for their association with the place, Langston Hughes for example is still referred to as the Poet Laureate of Harlem, Fisher still stands out for his captivating rendering of this iconic neighbourhood.
The success of The Conjure-Man Dies as a novel lies on two fronts. The book represents many elements of the ground-breaking work that was happening in the Harlem Renaissance. It is a rich and vibrant story about African-Americans, their cultural traditions and social experiences. There is an exuberance in the sense of black identity in the story, there’s a love and a pride and even an ability to laugh at oneself that give the book a sense of triumph. However, not only did Fisher succeed in creating an exceptional Harlem Renaissance novel, but he used these elements while breaking into a genre of mass-appeal. Not only is it an important cultural novel, it’s also a great detective story. Fisher crafts a story of glorious twists and turns, he blends the mystery and mysticism of the crime with the scientific and technical investigation. This is all complimented by his exceptional characterization and wry humor. Fisher took the detective fiction of his time, and not only excelled at it, but instigated a new and fresh perspective on the genre. The conjure-man dies, but the legacy certainly lives.