The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

Murder in Harlem…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Conjure-Man DiesIt’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.

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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
Rudolph Fisher

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

45 thoughts on “The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

  1. Oh, FictionFan, this does sound great! It’s a fascinating time in history, and I really like the Harlem setting. You make a really interesting point about the language, too. Context plays such an important role in the way words are intended and the connotations they have, and it sounds as though this really shows that. I can see why you liked this one so well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is also the one I mentioned on your post about the “jump scare” – he did that brilliantly too! I thought the language was great, and it was so much fun to read a book by a black American author of that era that wasn’t specifically about race or racism, if you know what I mean. He was able to let us see Harlem by the simple, but genius, idea of simply not having any white characters at all, so we didn’t have to see the races interacting. What a pity he died so young – a real talent!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. While I’ve heard of the Walls of Jericho, I’ve not come across this one before. I’m glad you enjoyed it so well, and the Harlem setting and exploration of this particular black community sound intriguing. I didn’t realise you could swap books round in your CC list, this one seems to have been a good shout.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t heard of him at all until this one popped through my letterbox – sometimes these books that get sent randomly turn out to be much better than the ones I carefully choose! Yes, the Classics Club rules let you change your list as you go along, and as soon as I read the history of this, as the first mystery novel by a black American writer, I felt it deserved a place more than some of the ones that were already on my list. A good call!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Nor me, until this book popped randomly through the letterbox! That’s why I love getting unsolicited books from publishers – they’ve introduced me to loads of authors I’d never have come across otherwise. And this one is a star!

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  3. This does sound good and I think I would enjoy the setting. I’ll have to go see what my options are…

    The 30s were hard in much of the US. I have The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah on hold hope to get it in the next couple of weeks. I’m afraid it’s not going to have any of the “joy and exuberance, despite the circumstances” that you describe in this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you can get hold of a copy! Yes, he didn’t gloss over the hardships but at the same time he showed that humans have a way of finding enjoyment even during the bad times – that’s something that often gets lost in storytelling, I think. I remember seeing the blurb for The Four Winds and being quite tempted – it sounds very like The Grapes of Wrath. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really need a treat at the moment and a dose of fun! I’m interested that you swapped this one into your classics list – I’d like to swap all the titles left on my list!

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is definitely fun! I was expecting something gritty and dismal (the cover really doesn’t reflect the book, I think) so it was a lovely surprise! I’ve swapped quite a few books on my list over the years – if I’ve abandoned one too early to review, or just gone off the idea of it, or, like in this case, stumbled across a book I’d never heard of that sounds as if it deserves a place more than some of the books already on the list. I always try to swap like for like though, so it was another crime novel that got booted to make room for this one.

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  5. Your enthusiasm over this one reads loud and clear, FF! It does sound good and, like your other commenters, I’m going to be looking for it. Thanks for such a glowing intro to an author I never came across before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s one of the real joys of getting unsolicited review copies that sometimes they send me a real gem I’d probably never have come across otherwise! I do hope you can get hold of a copy and that it entertains you as much as it did me. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hurrah! I do think you’ll like this one – it really deserves to be far better known. What a shame he died so young – I think he had the potential to become a real name in American literature.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This really does sound fun! And I want to read more books with a New York setting. When I thought about writing a “bookish ode to NYC” post, I realised I haven’t read that many (great) books taking place in New York. I only went to Harlem once, back then it was still quite a rough area (I think it’s changing though) but it certainly had its very own spirit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only “visited” Harlem through books and movies, but it always sounds like a place that is a character in its own right. I hope you decide to give it a try! Hmm… other books set in New York that I’d recommend – Passing by Nella Larsen (also Harlem but much more serious), Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell (historical fiction, 1950, publishing industry). Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (post 9/11 fiction) and Cop Hater by Ed McBain (crime, 50s and 60s, actually set in a fictionalised city but recognisable as New York). All five stars. You’re welcome! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad some of the big publishers are re-issuing some of these “forgotten” books. It’s bound to attract a whole new generation to them, I hope. This one should certainly never have been allowed to become forgotten!

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    • Yes, the cover really doesn’t fit the book in this instance – odd! Oh good, I hope you enjoy it! I love the way he includes the voodoo and superstitions – it all adds to the sense of place… and the fun!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed In Diamond Square. It’s such an interesting look at the life of non-participants, isn’t it? I’ve just finished another SCW one – Last Days in Cleaver Square – which is also wonderful. Review soon! 😀

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  7. I keep saying I will not add new books to my TBR and then you review something like this. It definitely sounds like something I want to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love the sound of this one! Now that you mention it, I haven’t come across many black-authored mystery books. I’m seeing more fantasy by BIPOC authors, but not a lot of mystery. The voodoo aspect sounds super cool, reminds me of an episode of Murder She Wrote with voodoo elements that I loved 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was trying to think of contemporary black crime writers too, and could only think of Attica Locke and a South African guy whose name escapes me at the moment. I think fantasy probably arises more naturally from the folklore and oral traditions of a lot of BIPOC authors, but it is surprising that so few have turned to crime, so to speak!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I saw there was an audio version – you must tell me if the narrator is good! I’m hoping that they might do an audio of the other book, The Walls of Jericho, which came out later. I’d enjoy hearing the dialect, if the narrator sounds authentic.

      Liked by 1 person

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