The Conjure-Man Dies, by Rudolph Fisher, is a murder mystery. Set in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, it concerns the death of the local “conjure-man” Frimbo, who seems to be a combination of psychic and witchdoctor. Jinx Jenkins and Bubber Brown, two local men who have called on Frimbo to ask for his advice, are the ones who discover the death and raise the alarm. They run across the road to ask for help from local physician, Dr Archer, as well as sending for the police, which turns up Detective Perry Dart. The two men proceed to work together in an attempt to solve the crime, which looks increasingly weirder and more baffling the longer the story progresses.
The Conjure-Man Dies, seems to have been the first and possibly the only Golden Age detective novel published by a black author. Fisher was a physician and intellectual living and working out of Harlem, and he had his fingers in a truly impressive number of pies. He worked as a researcher as well as a clinician, looking at the role of UV light in treating bacteriophages, and as well as writing The Conjure-Man Dies he also wrote extensively on other topics. It’s clear that his background and expertise informed the novel in two ways: one is the use of forensics, represented in the character of Dr Archer (on which, more below), and the other is the very realistic, well-described Harlem setting. I rarely read a book and think “I wish I could see this on screen”, but I really do think this would make an amazing film. The Harlem Renaissance is not a setting much explored in the period drama genre, and the descriptions in this are so vivid and interesting that I think it would carry over very nicely to the screen. I also found the use of language interesting – all the characters have different manners of speaking and use different vocabularies, informed by class and education. All taken together, it went into making the world feel very lived in.
One of the things I found fascinating about this – and which is fascinating about this period in history generally – is the mixture of belief systems represented and the way they interact. The very existence of a conjure-man in a community, especially one who’s turning a tidy profit, indicates that there are enough people there who believe in the occult and spiritism to make the business profitable. There is a woman who has pitched up who is – mostly – a devout Christian, but has basically decided that God is not going to help her in her situation so she might as well try the devil instead (to paraphrase). At the same time, Detective Dart and Dr Archer clearly don’t believe in any of this, but they are very interested in the effect that this belief might have on those who do. This theme crops up in crime fiction from time to time – not as often as I would expect given its potential richness – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it dealt with in as much depth as it is here. To explain how it informs the novel in more depth would be to spoil it, I think – but I found the scenes where Dr Archer is having to reckon with these events despite his very clear scepticism to be some of the highlights of the novel.
The characters, especially Dart, Archer, and Bubber, are a joy to spend time with. I found Archer’s perspective the most interesting, probably because it’s medical history-related. Learning about the application of forensics in this period, when it was still in its infancy, was fascinating. For example, there are in-depth descriptions of the way you would differentiate between blood samples in the days before contemporary crossmatching and DNA tests – for me this was fascinating throughout, though I think it would be a lot of exposition if you weren’t particularly fussed about that part. I think it’s clear that Archer’s point of view is an excuse for Fisher to write at length about the things that fascinated him. Because he was a researcher as well as a clinician, it’s clear that he stayed up-to-date on new innovations, and he has Archer discuss some of these within the novel. Archer has a funny manner of speaking, as well – verbose but very precise all at once. His speech patterns are a source of amusement for the other characters in the story, which I enjoyed a lot.
If I have a quibble with this book, it’s that I think the ending is rushed. I am used to the endings in traditional detective novels, which usually come with a bit of an explanation and allow me to make sense of the clues that have led up to it. I don’t read mystery novels in order to solve the puzzle, like a lot of people do. In fact, I am terrible at that and if I’m able to put the whole mystery together before it’s spelt out to me, I usually think that’s a sign that it’s not well-constructed. Still, I like to at least see how I have been fooled by the author. I’m not 100% sure this would meet the rules of fair play – a more astute reader might guess the ending, but I doubt they would work out the details before the big reveal. This is a minor issue, though, because this is a well-written and funny novel, with interesting characters and underlying themes. I would gladly recommend this novel, and indeed have already recommended it a couple of times in real life – always a sign that a book has stayed with me.