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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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 Most Famous Book Set in Your State?

640px Book Labyrinth the Last Bookstore

Jim Booth at the blog The New Southern Gentlemen recently took issue with a Business Insider called “The most famous book that takes place in every state”. Mostly, he takes issue with BI‘s nomination for his own state of North Carolina.

I have no opinion one way or the other about Nicholas Sparks, and given that my reading tastes runs to both genre and short stories, I’m probably not the most qualified person to weigh in on which full-length book should represent which state. But of course I couldn’t resist checking what they picked for California. I don’t know what I was expecting to see — but it wasn’t what they chose:

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.


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Supernatural Noir

Supernatural Noir
Edited by Ellen Datlow. 2012.

We’ve been moving all week, to a temporary apartment, while our house gets renovated. The extent of the work requires that we move everything out; we’ve at least managed to clear the two rooms that will be completely demolished next week, after the workmen finish digging back part of the hill that takes up most of our backyard. There is still way more to do, and I’m leaving for another business trip next week. Funny how things line up exactly the wrong way.

Most everything goes into storage, of course, including almost all of my books. I’m left with whatever reference books I absolutely need for work, whatever books were scattered around my bedside table (for once reading 50 hojillion books at the same time actually works in my favor), and what’s on my iPad and hard disk. I guess home renovations are another argument in favor of ebooks.

Today we took a break from moving and unpacking, and investigated a new comic book shop that opened up in our neighborhood. We are lucky enough to have several excellent comic book shops in San Francisco, and Two Cats looks like it will fit in just fine. I picked up a trade paperback of Steve Niles’s Cell Block 666. It’s from his series of stories about Cal McDonald, a private detective who specializes in supernatural cases. The supernatural detective genre has been around since at least the days of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories, to varying degrees of quality, but I enjoy it. Niles’s work is up and down, in my opinion — he also wrote the 31 Days of Night comic, which I liked, though the franchise went on waaay too long. The Cal McDonald stories are among my favorites from his work, so it should be a pleasant read.

Supernatural Noir is a collection of prose short stories. It’s published by Dark Horse Press, which is primarily a comic book publisher, hence the book’s presence in the shop next to the Cal McDonald trade paperbacks. The most recognizable author (to me, at least) in the Table of Contents is Joe Lansdale, of Bubba Ho-Tep fame. I’ve read several of his mostly East Texas based short stories, and a couple of his novels (all in a box right now!), so his name on the list of authors struck me as a good sign. And the premise of the collection is promising, don’t you think?

Noir is an attitude, a stance, a way of looking at the world. Paul Duncan, in his concise book Noir Fiction, defines it as a term “used to describe any work, usually involving crime — that is notably dark, brooding, cynical, complex, and pessimistic.”

— Ellen Datlow, in the Introduction to Supernatural Noir

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