I just finished reading The Conjure-Man Dies: A Harlem Mystery (first published in 1932) which has the distinction of being the first U.S. detective novel written by an African-American and the first one with an all Black cast of characters, including its wonderfully named sleuths Archer and Dart.
I had never heard of it before but I’m glad I read it. Beyond its historical significance it is a terrifically funny, intelligent and fast-paced read. It has just been re-issued with its original 1932 cover, and I will admit that it was the cover that first drew me in.
The book was written by Rudolph Fisher, who not only wrote novels and short stories during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s but was also a practicing physician. He died at the age of 37, two years after this book’s publication.
His main character is also a doctor, John Archer, who sees himself as a bit of an amateur detective. His medical knowledge and his metaphysical musings make him the perfect partner for his friend Perry Dart, one of only ten Black detectives on the Harlem police force.
Archer has a keenly perceptive eye, and a humorously pedantic manner, while Dart, equally intelligent, has a dogged way of getting the hard work done.
The plot is a version of the classic “locked room mystery” popular at the time. A Harvard educated son of an African chief, named N’Ango Frimbo, who runs a sort of sooth-saying and spell-casting parlour across the street from Dr. Archer, is apparantly murdered during one of his consultations. Archer and Dart examine the body and set about interviewing everyone at the scene.
But then his body disappears and Frimbo turns up perfectly alive claiming to have been in a state of suspended animation all along. Still, Archer and Dart believe that someone was killed -after all there was a dead body- and all of the clients in Frimbo’s waiting room become suspects.
I was kept guessing right up until the solution – which was both satisfying and implausible – but the real fun isn’t the plot, it’s the wonderful cast of Harlem characters scraping by during the Depression. Apart from middle-class characters like Archer and Dart there are speakeasy owners, numbers runners, dope fiends, church ladies and assorted hangers on. It is a really fun read with some great dialogue. Here’s a taste:
“Somebody put that thing on Frimbo tonight.”
“Put what thing on him?”
“Cut him loose, man. Put him on the well known spot.”
“If you want to put it that way.”
Pure Samuel Beckett!