I recently finished reading The Conjure-Man Dies, the first and possibly only Golden Age detective novel by an African-American author
It was sooooo good.
The plot is complex and twisty, but not overly complicated. The novel, which came out in 1932, has both aspects of a classic “murder in the library” Golden Age mystery, and of grittier, hardboiled crime fiction as well. It even has a little bit of mysticism and some supernaturalish elements — but don’t worry, there’s no “cheating:” the crime and its solution are strictly down-to-earth.
The novel’s author, Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934), was a practicing physician and medical researcher, a radiologist, and a member of that eminent group, Doctors Who Write — in such company as Arthur Conan Doyle, W. F. Harvey, David H. Keller, and probably more that I’ve forgotten about. Fisher puts his knowledge to good use in this story, which features, among other things, a nice description and use of (pre-DNA) methods of blood sample comparisons, and other clever forensic things.
As the story opens, Dr. John Archer is summoned late at night to the house across the street, where he finds the dead body of N’Gana Frimbo, a “Psychist”, or as he’s known in the neighborhood, a conjure-man. One of Frimbo’s clients discovered the body, and it soon becomes clear to Archer and Detective Perry Dart (one of only ten black detectives in Harlem) that the murderer must be one of the clients who consulted with Frimbo that evening. It doesn’t take too long to find a suspect, but then things take an odd, odd turn….
The plot is essentially a variation of a locked-room mystery, and it features the kind of tricks you might read about in an Agatha Christie novel or Sherlock Holmes story, puzzles that must be solved by the clever sleuth. But there is also plain old police procedure, and some snooping around that proves to be just as significant to the story. And unlike the elegant, upper-class world of a typical Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers novel, this murder happens in Harlem, amongst middle and working-class people, the good and the bad. Fisher shows us (at least in passing) some of the grimmer aspects of life: wife-beating, alcoholism, gambling, gangs, some implied spousal rape, the financial troubles of life in Depression-era New York.
Along with Archer and Dart, there’s a third sleuth as well: Bubber Brown, a slightly grifty self-proclaimed private detective. He and his friend Jinx Jenkins fill the same roles that R2-D2 and C-3PO do in the original Star Wars, or (an even better analogy) that the two peasants Tahei and Matashichi do in The Hidden Fortress: both comic relief and point of view.
The Conjure-Man Dies is not the first novel to feature a black detective (that was Pauline Hopkins’ Hagar’s Daughter), but it’s probably the first such “conventional” detective novel, in that it has the customary structure of modern detective fiction . All the main characters in the novel are black, and most of the minor characters as well. Since race is never explicitly mentioned for the minor characters, you could easily read the novel as having entirely black characters .
I found it refreshing, and I imagine that black readers of the time found it more so, to read about these characters existing on their own terms, and not in terms of the mainstream white society’s stereotypes of them. There are cops, there are crooks, there are murderers and mystics, all just living their lives. The position of black Americans in white-dominated society is only explicitly mentioned a few times (“Police detective? ‘Tain’t so. They don’t have no black detectives.”).
There are, however, plenty of cynical asides and sarcastic remarks alluding to their situation: the kind of remarks directed to others in an in-group, rather than the kind of expository, explanatory remarks aimed at out-group readers (I’ve grumbled about the latter before, and so have other people). Some of the language and some of the attitudes are dated, of course, but, well, it’s of its time. And it’s a perspective on that time not found in other crime fiction of the era.
There are other aspects of the novel I’d love to touch on, but I also don’t want to give the plot away. So I’ll just say I enjoyed it immensely, and so should any fan of Golden Age crime fiction, either the cozy or the hardboiled kind.
Fisher wrote one other novel, and several short stories, but (I believe) only two pieces of crime fiction: this novel, and the short story “John Archer’s Nose,” also featuring Archer and Dart. I think he was working on another Archer/Dart novel, but tragically died the day after Christmas in 1934, at the age of only 37.
I highly recommend The Conjure-Man Dies. If you can, make sure to get the Collins Crime Club edition (I have the hardcover; there is also a softcover). The Crime Club edition includes a 1971 preface by Stanley Ellin, as well as “John Archer’s Nose,” which is also great. There are other editions of the novel running around, but they don’t seem to have a preface or Fisher’s short story.
Check it out.
 The other candidate for first black detective novel is John Edward Bruce’s The Black Sleuth (1907-1909), which I bought but haven’t read yet. So I’m not sure whether it qualifies as a conventional detective novel, or is simply a novel with a black detective. (Back)
 The only character I visualized as white was the “florid” medical examiner Dr. Winkler; there was also a “pink-faced” medical examiner named Finkelbaum in “John Archer’s Nose.” Both medical examiners treat Detective Dart as a colleague and Dr. Archer as a peer. It’s interesting that Winkler and Finkelbaum are both surnames commonly associated with Jewish heritage. It makes me wonder if Fisher was drawing parallels about the mainstream society’s attitudes towards Blacks and Jews in America. But I could be reading too much into it. (Back)