The first known mystery novel by an African American writer returns to print, transporting readers to 1930s Harlem.
Eighty-nine years ago, in 1932, a 35-year-old African American physician and writer named Rudolph Fisher published The Conjure-Man Dies: A Harlem Mystery, the first known crime novel by a Black American. Fisher died only two years later, when he was still tragically young, so we will never know what later works might have secured his place among golden age mystery writers. On its own, however, this trailblazing work of fiction is notable for its depiction of Harlem’s African American society and culture in the 1930s. Its characters are exclusively Black and, most significantly, so are its crime-solving police detective, Perry Dart, and his forensics expert physician sidekick, John Archer.
One of the first Black men in the police force to be elevated to detective, the assured and perceptive Dart admits that “in Harlem one learns most by seeking least—to force an issue was to seal it in silence forever.” The mystery unfolds largely through his dogged and wily interrogation, and the plot is marked by a number of unexpected twists, particularly one halfway in when, after African psychic and “conjure-man” N’Gana Frimbo has been murdered and sent to the medical examiner, his body disappears, calling into question the very nature of the crime they’ve been investigating.
The narrative itself is typical of the wider genre during this period, heavy on explicatory dialogue and a bit short on action. Still, Fisher’s way with description is commanding. “Out went the extension light,” he writes. “The original bright horizontal shaft shot forth like an accusing finger pointing toward the front room, while the rest of the death chamber went black.” Likewise, the banter among his ragtag cast is both musical and, at times, extremely amusing. “You’re an American, of course?” Dart asks one suspect. “I is now,” she responds. “But I originally come from Savannah, Georgia.” The memorable Harlem denizens that people the novel include a self-proclaimed (i.e., unlicensed) private eye, a dimwitted numbers runner, that haughty Georgia churchwoman and Frimbo’s mortician landlord.
With its sharp Harlem rhythms and abundance of wise-talk, one can easily imagine the jaunty black-and-white film that Hollywood might have made of this novel, had Hollywood been interested in making films centering authentic Black characters during the early 20th century. The novel was, however, turned into a play two years after Fisher’s death. If you’re interested in more of Fisher’s writings, this book also includes Fisher’s last published story, “John Archer’s Nose,” which reunites Dart and Archer. This story hints at what might have come to pass for this Holmes and Watson pairing had its creator not died of cancer, which he likely developed from his professional experimentation with X-rays at his private practice as a radiologist in New York.
Falling in and out of print over the years since it first appeared, The Conjure-Man Dies is now happily welcomed back to its rightful place both in the history of crime fiction and the wider canon of Black literature.