11 September 2011

Reading Report: The Conjure-Man Dies

I just finished reading Rudolph Fisher's The Conjure-Man Dies. It's subtitled "a mystery tale of dark Harlem," and Fisher wrote it in 1932. Fisher had two short stories collected in Alain Locke's The New Negro, which was essentially a who's who of Harlem Renaissance writers published in 1925. Fisher was also a trained physician, and the central character of The Conjure-Man Dies is John Archer, a physician who lives across the street from the conjure man's place of business.

The novel is notable in being the first known mystery novel written by an African American. The writing style is very engaging, although the central mystery of how the conjure man, N. Frimbo, is capable of seeing into the future rather accurately is not dealt with. Frimbo is a former African king, educated at Harvard, who collects sex glands, although where they all came from isn't very well explained. At least one comes from a fellow tribesman, an assistant who dies an untimely death. Frimbo explains to Archer the necessity of the removal of the sex glands for proper tribal ritual, but the several jars he keeps in his office seem a tad too numerous for the number of fellow tribesmen likely to live and die in NYC in the early 1930's.

The story is very much in the style of the parlor mystery, a bit of a twist on the locked-room plot: the suspects are for the most part assembled in the place of business when the doctor arrives on the scene, and he along with the police detective, Perry Dart, sort through the events and the evidence trying to figure out who did it.

My overall impression was that Fisher's novel is not nearly so well-crafted as his short stories, but it has several factors that make it an attractive text for study, not least of which is its status as the first example of African American mystery writing. Fisher perhaps doesn't resolve the mystery of Frimbo's prognostication because Fisher is reserving a bit of mystery that the doctor, who is very much a believer in reason, can't resolve. Therefore, you have a nice rational/irrational or science/magic dichotomy to explore. Further, there's the question of class. Against Dr. Archer and N. Frimbo's patrician bearing and speech you have the unpolished but professional Perry Dart and a cast of working class and low-life buffoons, one of whom, Bubber Brown, supplies a good deal of comic relief.

The novel was reprinted in 1992 by Ann Arbor Press, and I think that's the only version available, which could make it dicey for course adoptions, unless A-A Press still has it in print. I picked my copy up from abebooks.com.

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