Murder in Harlem…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
It’s a late evening in Harlem, in the early 1930s, and a little group of people are waiting to see Frimbo, a conjure-man with extraordinary powers to see the future and even to change it, or so the locals believe. But while Jinx Jenkins is sitting in Frimbo’s dark consulting room, Frimbo seems to lose the thread of what he’s saying and then goes silent. Jinx turns the single light on him, only to discover he is dead. But how did he die? And how could anyone have killed him without Jinx seeing it? Sergeant Perry Dart and his friend Dr Archer will have to find their way through a maze of motives and superstition to get to the truth…
Well, this is just fabulous fun! There’s a real Golden Age style mystery at the heart of it, complete with clues, motives, a closed list of suspects, and so on. But the setting makes it entirely unique. Fisher gives a vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem, bringing to life a cast of exclusively black characters from all walks of life, from the highly educated Dr Archer to the new arrival from Africa, Frimbo, to the local flyboys hustling to survive in a Depression-era America that hasn’t yet moved far from the post-Civil War era. Amid the mystery and the lighthearted elements of comedy, a surprisingly clear picture emerges of this black culture within a culture, where poverty and racism are so normal they are barely remarked upon, and where old superstitious practices sit comfortably alongside traditional religion. Life is hard in Harlem, for sure, but there’s an exuberance about the characters – a kind of live for the moment feeling – that makes them a joy to spend time with.
….In the narrow strip of interspace, a tall brown girl was doing a song and dance to the absorbed delight of the patrons seated nearest her. Her flame chiffon dress, normally long and flowing, had been caught up bit by bit in her palms, which rested nonchalantly on her hips, until now it was not so much a dress as a sash, gathered about her waist. The long shapely smooth brown limbs below were bare from trim slippers to sash, and only a bit of silken underthing stood between her modesty and surrounding admiration.
….With extraordinary ease and grace, this young lady was proving beyond question the error of reserving legs for mere locomotion, and no one who believed that the chief function of the hips was to support the torso could long have maintained so ridiculous a notion against the argument of her eloquent gestures.
….Bubber caught sight of this vision and halted in his tracks. His abetting of justice, his stern immediate duty as a deputy of the law, faded.
….“Boy!” he said softly. “What a pair of eyes!”
I don’t want to over-analyse it because ultimately it’s all about entertainment. However, there’s a kind of feeling that the inhabitants of Harlem deal with the inherent disadvantage of being black in America by cutting themselves off from the wider culture, and living their own lives by their own social code as much as they can. There’s also what seems like an early glimpse of what has become a more deliberate thing now – black “owning” of white racist terminology and negative stereotyping, and the conversion of those negatives into a positive, assertive black culture. There is a lot of language in the book we (white people) would now consider racist, but it reminded me of the rap artists of today – the sting taken out of the words because they are being used by black characters.
Book 77 of 90
I loved the voodoo aspects of the plot, with the less educated characters willing to believe that Frimbo really had supernatural powers, and turning to him for help with all kinds of problems – money, love, abusive spouses. But Dr Archer’s scientific knowledge is a counter-balance to this, with him usually able to work out how the conjure-man performed his tricks.
The language is wonderful, both in the descriptive passages and in the dialogue, full of layers of dialect according to the social class of the speaker. The humour mostly comes from the pairing of Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins, firm friends though they squabble and insult each other all the time. Bubber in particular is very “suprastitious” and has a fund of lore passed down from his grandmammy.
….“A human skull!” repeated Bubber. “Yes, ma’am. Blottin’ out the moon. You know what that is?”
….“What?” said the older woman.
….“That’s death on the moon. It’s a moonsign and it’s never been known to fail.”
….“And it means death?”
….“Worse ’n that, ma’am. It means three deaths. Whoever see death on the moon” – he paused, drew breath, and went on in an impressive lower tone – “gonna see death three times!”
….“My soul and body!” said the lady.
….But Jinx saw fit to summon logic. “Mean you go’n’ see two more folks dead?”
….“Gonna stare ’em in the face.”
….“Then somebody ought to poke yo’ eyes out in self-defence.”
Rudolph Fisher was considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance and had the distinction of being the first black American author to write a mystery novel, then remaining the only one to have done so until several decades later. Sadly he died a young man just a few years after publishing this, his only mystery novel, though he had also published a non-mystery novel which apparently features my favourite characters Jinx and Bubber, The Walls of Jericho. Happily I see HarperCollins have re-issued it too this year.
I’m glad I decided to swap this one onto my Classics Club list, because it feels very much at home there. As an added bonus, the book contains a substantial short story, John Archer’s Nose, also starring Dart and Archer and also excellent. Give yourself a treat – this one gets my highest recommendation!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club – Harlem.