The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) by Rudolph Fisher

Rudolph Fisher was an African-American physician, radiologist and a notable author from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, but, during the early 1930s, Fisher turned to the popular detective stories of the day and penned The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) – which was successful enough to be adapted into a stage play in 1936. In his introduction to the 1971 edition, Stanley Ellin writers Fisher "devoted himself to some serious study of what made the books of both Hammett and S.S. van Dine tick, since both their approaches are clearly evident in The Conjure-Man Dies." An intricately-plotted mystery in the classical mold with characters and dialogue "wholly of Hammett's realistic school" ("Fisher's own sympathies and interests lie with Hammett, much as he deferred to traditional techniques").

Over the past few years,
The Conjure-Man Dies has been reprinted several times starting with the 2017 edition from Collins Crime Club. These new editions all come with the posthumously published short story "John Archer's Nose" (1935) and Ellin's old introduction, which is kind of a problem. They should have asked someone like Curt Evans to write a fresh introduction to place the book in the proper light and historical context, genre-wise, because Ellin showed some prejudices of his own where the classical detective story is concerned. Ellin called the structures of the classical Golden Age mystery "as rigid as those of a Japanese no play, their characters one-dimensional, their styles generally florid, representative of the snob's idea of Good Writing." A dismissal of the entire genre apparently based on nothing more than a rereading of S.S. van Dine and points anyone to his work "questioning what might seem excessively harsh judgments in the foregoing" ("luckily, in 1930, there crept into this WASP paradise of genteel murder a serpent named Dashiell Hammett"). Van Dine and particularly his creation Philo Vance have received their fair share criticism over the past century, not always without reason, but discarding a whole segment of genre based on the work of one man is hilariously shortsighted. In this case, it's hilariously shortsighted for several reasons.

First of all, it undersells just how closely Fisher aligned himself in The Conjure-Man Dies with the Van Dine School, but also overlooks that the Van Dinean detective story is pro-Civil Rights, which Mike Grost wrote about on his website – filed under "Van Dine School: Pro Civil Rights" ("...this starts with S.S. van Dine in The "Canary" Murder Case, 1927)." A point conveniently ignored to trash the classical whodunit and almost condescendingly excusing Fisher's indulgence on account of him injecting some realism and a cast of black characters into those tired old plot devices and techniques. So the introduction ends up being very one-sided and not particular fair to what Fisher attempted to do as a whole, because those Van Dinean elements dominate and dictate the majority of the story. Not to mention the introduction strikes a jarring note for a reprint edition published right in the middle of a reprint renaissance and something of a revival of the Golden Age detective story. A more up-to-date introduction with a better, deeper and fairer understanding of the historical context around both the book and its author would have complemented this new run of reprint editions.

So, with that gripe out of the way, it's time to get to the really important stuff. How good is The Conjure-Man Dies as a detective novel? Time to find out!

The Conjure-Man Dies takes place for the most part in a dark, gloomy three-story house on Thirteen West 130th, Harlem, where the conjure-man N'Gana Frimbo receives clients who wish to have their fortunes read. Frimbo has room for his conjuring tricks "hung from ceiling to floor with black velvet drapes" and from the center of the black-clad ceiling a chain suspended a chain single, strange source of light over a chair behind a large desk – leaving everything else unlighted. So "the person who used the chair beneath the odd spotlight could remain in relative darkness while the occupant of the other chair was brightly illuminated." A bizarre room that becomes a macabre murder scene when the conjure-man dies in the middle of a session. One moment he was speaking, the next moment he was dead as a door nail. This brings the first of Fisher's two intended series-characters to the scene.

Dr. John Archer is called upon to attend to Frimbo, but quickly determines he had been
stunned by a blow to the head before the unseen, unheard murderer expertly choked him to death with a handkerchief. That makes it a case for the police. Enter Perry Dart. Detective Dart was one of the first black members of Harlem's police force "
to be promoted from the rank of patrolman to that of detective," but greatly admires Dr. Archer. Welcomes his opinions on this puzzling case ("...he's a better detective than I am—missed his calling, I think"). After all, how could a man have been stunned and choked in a room with someone else present and the door under observation? And getting away without being seen or heard?

While the Harlem backdrop is a little different from the usual Manhattan setting, you can already spot many of the Van Dine School features. There's the friendship between the amateur and professional detective who closely work in tandem or the action largely being confined to the crime scene, which also explores the movements of the half dozen suspects around the building before and after the murder. A murder and crime scene that appears to be strange, surreal or downright impossible and the Van Dinean elements continue to pile on. Such as a wall adorned with horrifying masks, broad-bladed sword, arrows, spears and murderous-looking clubs – not all are decorative. Private collections or even entire, in-house private museums are often found in the works of Van Dine School writers. Just to give an idea how deeply the book is rooted in the Van Dinean tradition and not something that should have been dismissed out of hand so easily. But, yes, there are a few notable differences and divergences from your standard Van Dine-Queen style detective novel.

Firstly, Dr. Archer's medical background and interest in forensic science allows the already tricky plot to toy around with fingerprinting, blood typing and dental works. Something more in line with R. Austin Freeman than Van Dine. Secondly, the undisguised racial issues set against Depression-era Harlem with its gambling, racketeering and other seedy gang activities going on in the background sharply sets it apart from the works of Anthony Abbot, Clyde B. Clason and Kelley Roos. In that regard, Ellin was right Fisher's having one foot in Hammett's camp gave The Conjure-Man Dies some of "the qualities of a social document recording a time and a place without seeming to." A unique contribution to the Van Dine-Queen School. There is, however, one more thing where the book really diverges from its Van Dinean counterparts and the followers of Hammett's new realism.

I already mentioned the murder of the conjure-man has a surreal feel about it, "the utter impossibility of any man's talking, dead or alive, when his throat was plugged," which is dialed up almost to the max during the second-half – starting with the disappearance and reappearance of Frimbo's corpse. Stylistically, it's a stroke of genius to have that plot development echo, or rather mirror, the discovery of the murder in the most fantastic way imaginable. And some of the scene following the reemergence of the corpse sometimes felt like reading a pulp-style mystery by Theodore Roscoe. That being said, Fisher retreats deeper into pulp territory as the final chapters roll around and results in a heavy-handed ending with a labored solution. I agree with Jim it requires "an almost Bond Villain level of organisation which sort of comes out of nowhere" betraying the hand of an inexperienced, debuting mystery writer and plotter.

Nevertheless, The Conjure-Man Dies is brimming with promise, wildly imaginative ideas and two engaging lead characters with a pair of potentially great recurring characters in Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkings. Fisher intended to continue the series and revealed in interviews "he had at least two sequels planned, one of which, provisionally entitled Thus Spake the Prophet," but died in 1934 at the age of 37 from abdominal cancer probably caused by his x-ray experimentations. It would have been interesting to see how Fisher would have developed as a mystery writer and whether, or not, his plotting abilities improved. Either way, John Archer and Perry Dart series would certainly have its loyal fans even today. More importantly, a full-fledged Archer and Dart series might have inspired as like Fisher to try their hands as the Greatest Game in the World. Just like Van Dine inspired an entire following who would go on to improve on the ideas he introduced in the less than perfect Philo Vance series.


  1. Oh, this is interesting. I often wish there were more African American mystery authors, so I’ll likely check this out. It feels like even nowadays there aren’t many who write the kind of books I enjoy (and among modern locked room mysteries, very few include black characters at all…)

    Are there any other black mystery authors you’ve posted about, by any chance?

    1. There is Chester Himes, but his Harlem series is in the Hammett/Chandler vein.