The Conjure-Man Dies is believed to be the first detective novel by an African-American author, published in 1932. Rudolph Fisher was part of the Harlem Renaissance and the characters are all black Harlemites.
The novel centres around an African ‘conjure-man’ (psychic/fortune teller), N’Gana Frimbo, who offers consultations in his apartment above an undertaker’s, in a room cloaked in darkness, and spookily illuminated.
When one of his clients, dazzled by the effect, realises belatedly that he is talking to a corpse, he calls local physician Dr Archer. Perry Dart, one of New York’s few black detectives, works with the doctor to solve the crime.
The Conjure-Man Dies is interesting in that it follows the classic golden age template, but has a hardboiled setting. There is a fixed group of suspects (the people who had contact with Frimbo that night) and most of the detection revolves around solving a puzzle and following clues. After a number of twists and turns, the novel ends with a set-piece denouement.
This isn’t my favourite kind of crime fiction – I’m more drawn to psychological realism – and some of the descriptions of the house and the precise layout of the rooms was a bit slow for me. What I enjoyed, though, was the descriptions of Harlem and the people living there. There is some very beautiful, atmospheric writing, conveying the energy and drama of a fast-changing part of the city.
Fisher also highlights the distinctions drawn within the black community in Harlem. Frimbo is seen as separate because he is African, the cerebral Dr Archer is immediately accepted as an authority figure. The two young men who discover the body berate each other with racially charged language based on the relative darkness of their skin, to the extent that the publisher warns in a note that this will be offensive to many readers. In the context of the novel, it is shown as paradoxically highlighting the intimacy of their friendship, the “bantz” of its day.
The Conjure-Man Dies is interesting if you like classic mysteries with a strong sense of place, are interested in the Harlem Renaissance or in the history of the crime fiction genre.
I received a copy of The Conjure-Man Dies from the publisher via Netgalley.
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