I have not read a detective novel, with the exception of Poe, since my childhood. Reading The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem was a nice reintroduction to the genre. I do feel I am incapable of fully interpreting such a novel but I can speak to some interesting themes that pop up. Rudolph Fisher was only thirty-seven when he died, which was not long after The Conjure-Man Dies was published. He was fully part of the African-American urban landscape, studying at Brown and Columbia, before settling with a private medical practice in Harlem. His primary profession was medicine but he started writing on life in Harlem as early as the 1920s and was fully a part of the literary and political culture of the Harlem Renaissance. The Conjure-Man Dies connects his observations of Harlem as a vibrant and exciting place with his technical medical knowledge. Together they make for a fascinating mystery. In the novel, we are confronted with a supernatural event which is slowly broken down, through medical and detective work, into a fully explicable (yet fascinating) slice of life in 1930s Harlem.
I suppose etiquette demands I do not reveal the plot in too much detail. It revolves around a “conjure-man,” Frimbo, who is murdered. But Frimbo shows up soon alive and well and the body disappears. As a local practitioner of various let us call them, spiritual services, Frimbo made some enemies. He is an well-educated African with access to knowledge both supernatural and scientific. He is able to converse with confidence one of the lead investigators, Dr. John Archer. The other investigator is one “of the ten Negro members of Harlem’s police force to be promoted from the rank of patrolman to that of detective,” a man named Perry Dart. (383) This novel is of historical interest because it is the first mystery novel by a black writer, with all-black characters. I struggle to think of another example.
One theme of the novel explores the power of magic and the supernatural among the people of Harlem. Frimbo’s power and his large number of enemies comes from his position as a spiritualist, with ties to Africa. Yet, true power came from education and the application of knowledge. Frimbo, Archer and Dart dominate the novel because of their knowledge and ability to us reason. All the strange events can be explained as natural scheming and Frimbo’s magic powers are all explained. Fisher seems to be on the side of science and rather scornful of superstition. What I do not know is if this is a common motif in detective novels of that era. Fisher may be less overtly political and more a product of the genre. His personal history and the text itself suggest his consciousness of the power of superstition, religion, and magic among his Harlem neighbors. As a doctor, he may have heard his share of stories from patients.
In the debate discussed in my last two posts about the role of art, Fisher seems to have found a nice middle ground. Perhaps the genre choice gave him this freedom to sit above the fray. He does document the rich, vibrant and gritty life of Harlem, with colorful characters, deceivers, and crooks. But my praising education and upward mobility so strongly, Fisher is not unaffected by the arguments of Du Bois and Alaine Locke, that art should serve as propaganda.
Mostly, it is a fun novel and genuinely surprising.