Reading The Conjure-Man Dies

I recently finished reading The Conjure-Man Dies, the first and possibly only Golden Age detective novel by an African-American author

The Conjure-Man Dies
Reproduction of the original cover for The Conjure-Man Dies; also the cover for the Collins Crime Edition hardback. Artist: Charles Alston

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….

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The Seeds of Nero Wolfe

Before ghost stories and the uncanny, crime fiction was my genre of choice. I’ve gone back to reading a lot of mystery lately, especially Golden Age mystery, and
recently I came across an early Rex Stout story — pre Nero Wolfe. The Last Drive (1916) is an enjoyable enough story of its kind, but got more interesting when I realized that this golf-themed mystery is an early version of the central conceit in the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934). Aha!

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The first installment of The Last Drive appeared in the July 1916 issue of Golfers Magazine. Source: Hathi Trust

The Last Drive was originally published as a five-part serial in Golfers Magazine, and had been long forgotten, even by Rex Stout scholars. The story was rediscovered in 2011 by Cattelya Concepcion, then a student at George Mason University School of Law. She and her professor, Ross Davies, published their discovery in the 2012 Green Bag Almanac and Reader, an annual almanac that highlights the previous year’s exemplary legal writing.

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Library Police: A Novel Crime Fiction Genre

Reading two different takes on libraries, crime, and the 1970s.

I tripped over an interesting collection while browsing the Wildside Press website: The Library Fuzz Megapack, James Holding’s series of short stories about Hal Johnson, the “Library Fuzz.” That’s right, he’s library police for the Grandhaven Public Library, in a smallish city that seems to be modeled on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[1] His job is to track down stolen and overdue books, and collect fines.

The Library Fuzz Megapack, by James Holding

As someone who more than once has put a hold on a checked-out book at my local library, only to eventually discover that said book has disappeared, this concept resonates with me. I’m lucky; I can afford to buy books that I can’t get from the library, but not everyone can. And often the book I asked for is older, out of print, and relatively obscure, so even money doesn’t help; the book can’t be easily purchased, and information has simply been lost. So, while I appreciate that it isn’t a good look these days for cops to go door to door, demanding the return of overdue books and collecting late fees (which is what Hal Johnson does–politely), I have to admit that I like the idea of libraries having their own police to recover stolen books. I suspect more than a few librarians feel the same.

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Revisiting Wilbur Daniel Steele

It is always hazardous to prophesy the future course of an admirable writer, but it is safe to say that the rich, human embodiment of the stories collected in this volume assure them a permanence in our literature for their imaginative reality, their warm color, and their finality of artistic execution. Almost without exception they represent the best that is being accomplished in America today by a literary artist.

— Edward J. O’Brien, Introduction to Land’s End and Other Stories (1918)

When I first read Wilbur Daniel Steele’s 1919 short story, “Out of Exile,” it struck me right away. The language was beautiful, the imagery evocative. I loved it. I felt immediately drawn into this New England fishing community, on the fictional Urkey Island, as the love triangle at the heart of the story unfolded through the filter of the narrator’s growing up and coming-of-age. And although the story was not in any way supernatural, somehow it felt like a ghost story. And that, of course, is a plus, as far as I’m concerned. I wondered: who is this Wilbur Daniel Steele? Did he write any actual ghost stories? What are they like?

Wilbur Daniel Steele
Wilbur Daniel Steele, circa 1918. Source: Wikimedia

He’s quite forgotten today (sorry, Mr. O’Brien!), but Wilbur Daniel Steele was one of the most popular American short story writers of the early twentieth century. He wrote both for prestigious fiction magazines and for women’s magazines. Between 1915 and 1933, at least ten of Steele’s stories appeared in Edward J. O’Brien’s annual Best [American] Short Stories of the Year. Over the same period, eleven of his stories were O. Henry prize selections: one more than John Cheever, one fewer than Alice Munro and William Faulkner.

After about 1933, he seems to have published fewer short stories, and these largely in women’s magazines. He had a revival of sorts around the 1950s, when some of his earlier work was republished in crime fiction magazines like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. After that, he dropped off the radar. Steele passed away in 1970, at the age of 84.

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Solar Pons, Sherlock Holmes, and Me

The Chronicles of Solar Pons

I stumbled upon The Chronicles of Solar Pons—the original 1972 Mycroft & Moran edition, in nearly new condition—on one of the “Used Books” shelves of Borderland’s Books. Not even in the Mystery section of the store, but in the Horror section, which tells you which section of August Derleth’s wide range of works may be most remembered today. I knew who Solar Pons was, but I wasn’t familiar with the stories. Still, I knew that true Holmes aficionados considered the Pons stories to be the best pastiches of the Canon out there, and the book was quite reasonably priced. So I bought it.

According to the front leaf of the book’s dust jacket, Derleth passed away not too long after finishing the final draft of the manuscript. So Chronicles is the last volume of the Derleth-authored Pons stories, and I began my journey at the end, so to speak. I had vague memories of running into a Pons story before, in some anthology or other, a long time ago; I think it was one of the stories Basil Copper wrote. I was not so into Sherlock Holmes back then, so the story made little impression.

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Reading Honolulu Mysteries

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I discovered Glen Grant’s noirish Honolulu detective Arthur McDougal in Grant’s collection Obake: Ghost Stories in Hawaii. The two McDougal tales in Obake have supernatural villains, so one could say that McDougal in these stories is a (reluctant) occult detective. The other tales in Obake, which mostly focus on aspects of Japanese supernatural folklore that “migrated” to Hawaii, are also delightful.

The short stories in Honolulu Mysteries are different. Although the tales include various aspects of Hawaiian folklore and sometimes even feature a touch of Hawaiian supernatural phenomena, the bad guys are all definitely human — just as they ought to be, in McDougal’s view.

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The Department of Dead Ends

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I adore Columbo; I got addicted to reruns of the original Seventies-era series when I was in graduate school, and it’s still one of my favorite TV shows. Columbo’s sharp eye for apparently trivial incongruities, his deceptively bumbling manner, his mythical wife who’s a fan of everything and everyone, his equally mythical Captain who just hates loose ends — I love it all.

Columbo‘s format is the so-called inverted mystery, where the viewer (or reader) knows whodunit, how, and even why. The real mystery is how the murderer will be caught. You could make an argument that inverted mysteries existed in literature at least as far back as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment ; I read somewhere that the creators of Columbo cite this novel as on influence on the Columbo format. That, and the “cozy English mystery” tradition of elaborately complicated murder amongst the upper classes (investigated by the not so upper class police). But the official original inverted mystery is R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski” (1911).  The story was popular enough that Freeman wrote four more and collected them with “Brodski” into The Singing Bone (1912).

Beyond the twist of presenting the crime before the investigation, Freeman’s stories are classic ratiocination stories. His protagonist, Dr. Thorndyke, is basically Sherlock Holmes, complete with a (portable) laboratory and a Dr. Watson (Dr. Jervis, in this case). Thorndyke notices things the police don’t, and awes them with his deductive prowess. As with most stories in the ratiocination genre, the detective and his extraordinary abilities are the center of the tales.

The stories in Roy Vickers’ The Department of Dead Ends (1949) are inverted mysteries of a different style. The Department of Dead Ends is a group within Scotland Yard whose sole purpose is to take “everything the other departments rejected:” clues that led nowhere, cases that can’t be closed (or that no one is interested in closing), puzzling but seemingly irrelevant information, lost items. The department solves cases (often cold cases) via this massive collection of minutia mostly by serendipity: someone happens to notice that a puzzling fact from one case, when put together with some irrelevant trivia from an apparently unrelated situation, becomes an observation neither puzzling nor irrelevant to either circumstance.

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Two Bottles of Relish

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I’ve long been a fan of Lord Dunsany’s beautiful prose, and I can’t get as much of it as I would like. Much of his early work, now in the public domain, is high fantasy, which is a genre I’m not fond of. His later (non-public domain) work isn’t much published anymore. So I was overjoyed to discover that Harper Collins has reprinted Dunsany’s only volume of crime stories, Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories — and at a very reasonable price. An early Christmas gift to me! Continue reading

Not Holmes: American Detective Stories from a Century Ago

American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Several years ago, at a wonderful, now gone bookstore called Outerlands, I found a collection called The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Hugh Greene (one-time Director-General of the BBC, journalist, and Graham Greene’s brother). The book is one of a series of “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” anthologies Greene edited in the 1970s. Most of the stories, as you would expect, are of the whodunit or puzzle variety.

What’s especially interesting is the difference in subject matter between typical stories in the Holmesian style and these contemporaneous American offerings. British mystery stories from this period tend to be about interpersonal crime: crimes of passion, crimes over money or jewels, or jealousy. There is the occasional case of international espionage, but the criminals are almost always individual actors. Many of the stories in this collection are American transpositions of these classic themes, but others go beyond the personal to corporate or political crime.

Here’s Greene:

Sometimes one realizes with a sense of shock how modern these differences make them appear. We find a brutal and corrupt police force, corrupt politicians, bugging, big and wealthy corporations using their power to cheat the Federal Government or to put small competitors out of business, methods used by political parties in elections which are extraordinarily reminiscent of Nixon’s CREEP.

Rereading these stories this past month, I found a particularly interesting theme running through several of these now century-old stories.

  1. Big business routinely engage in corrupt practices for the sake of the bottom line.
  2. When caught, only the little guys (those who implemented the crimes) get punished. The corporate officers, who instigated, or at least encouraged the crimes, get off lightly, or perhaps even completely.
  3. That the big guys get off is wrong. But there are members of the Government — Senators, Federal Agents, and others — who are intent on making the big guys pay.

The first two points still sound awfully familiar, and far too topical, a century later. The last point, I fear, we no longer believe. Do these stories mean that we once trusted more in the State to protect the public’s interest against big business? Or does it mean the opposite: were these stories escapist fantasy about the world we wished that we lived in?

It is the strong hope of the country that there is justice and fairness and sane commonsense at the American bottom of us, if you can only get at it.

— Francis Lynde, “The Cloud-Bursters” Continue reading

The Half-Haunted

Christmas is past, the days are getting longer again, but winter is still here! Today, a winter tale set on New Year’s Eve: “The Half-Haunted” by Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986), writing as Gans T. Field. And some literary gossip, too.

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Manly Wade Wellman wrote science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult adventure stories, and history, mostly of the South and the Civil War. He was fond of the occult detective genre, and is perhaps best known for his three occult detectives: Silver John (or John the Balladeer), Judge Pursuivant, and John Thunstone. Silver John is my favorite of the three.

Wellman is also notorious for having beat out William Faulkner for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine award in 1946, with a tale featuring one of the earliest fictional Native American detectives, David Return. The story was called “Star for a Warrior.” Faulkner, already a highly-regarded literary author (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature just three years later, in 1949) was not too pleased at taking second place in a “manufactured mystery story contest” behind a mere pulp writer. However Faulkner’s story, “An Error in Chemistry,” had been turned down nine times before he submitted it to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and EQMM would only take it after Faulkner cleared up a plot point. So perhaps it wasn’t his best work. I’ve read it, it’s quite good, though the ending feels a trifle contrived — but then again, so does the ending of “Star for a Warrior.”

Anyway, back to our winter tale. “The Half-Haunted” was originally published in the September 1941 issue of Weird Tales. It is the last of the Judge Pursuivant stories.

For six months Judge Pursuivant had intended to visit that old dwelling with the strange history but Judge Pursuivant often has trouble finding time to do what he most wants. The fall passed, the winter came. He spent Christmas, not very joyfully, helping the widow of a friend repossess some property at Salem. New Year’s Eve found him at Harrisonville, where de Graudin and Towbridge wanted his word on translating certain old Dutch documents better left untranslated. Heading west and south toward his home, he passed Scott’s Meadows. And, though it was nearly dark and snowy, he could not resist the opportunity to visit Criley’s Mill then and there.

The site of a Revolutionary War era murder still holds its memories — and more.

This story is more action-packed than spooky; the tagline in Weird Tales was “Judge Pursuivant Routs a Murderous, Hunchbacked Hulk of a Phantom!” Yes, with exclamation point. But it’s fun.

And did you notice? The pair “de Graudin and Towbridge” sound awfully like Jules de Grandin and Dr. Trowbridge, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of occult detectives, created by Seabury Quinn. An almost cross-over! I wonder if Quinn ever reciprocated.

You can read The Half-Haunted at Wikisource, here.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

You can read some of my previous posts about Wellman’s Silver John stories here and here.

The illustration is by Hannes Bok (Wayne Francis Woodard), from the original Weird Tales publication. Image sourced from Wikisource.

You can read Wellman’s “Star for a Warrior” here. The only link I could find for Faulkner’s “An Error in Chemistry” looked a bit sketchy, but the story was reprinted in both The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. Tony Hillerman edited both of those collections, and neither one contains “Star for a Warrior,” so obviously Mr. Hillerman did not agree with the judges of that first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine award.

You can read an account of the great Wellman versus Faulkner showdown at The Passing Tramp blog here and with further details here. The second link is the only version I can find online to the Oregon Literary Review article that The Passing Tramp references.

The third finalist for the EQMM prize that year was T.S. Stribling, who wrote mystery and adventure for the pulp magazines, and serious novels about the American South. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his novel The Store. His story was called “Count Jalacki goes Fishing,” from the September 1946 issue of EQMM.