I wish the author had been able to write more mysteries before he died…
The Conjure-Man Dies is a piece of history: its introduction says it’s the first detective novel written by an African-American. That tends to put it under a bright spotlight, and might make it hard for the book to live up to its billing. But it did, and I found The Conjure-Man Dies to be thoroughly enjoyable on many levels.
First, author Rudolph Fisher was an accomplished man – a doctor, writer and musician. This shows throughout the book, whether it’s in the elegant writing style or in the tongue-in-cheek medical terminology that Dr. Archer, one of the two main protagonists, uses to deliberately tease his friend (and the other main protagonist), Perry Dart. For example, when Dart mentions sending out an alarm for “the tall dark gentleman with the cock-eye”, Dr. Archer murmurs in the background, “external strabismus is the term”. “The hell it is”, replies Dart.
And the humor wasn’t limited to the medical realm. I realized early on, probably when the undertaker’s wife mentions quite matter-of-factly that her husband doesn’t really have to worry about his business premises being robbed, that this was going to be a book that I was going to have to read alone, since I’d be laughing out loud a lot.
Second, the plotting was tight, and full of clues. In true Golden Age style – and after all, this was written during the Golden Age – several characters get put in the hot seat, one after the other, for the reader’s consideration. And they mostly seem as if they might fit pretty well. So, although when I later went back and looked, the clues were there, the identity of the culprit at the end was a surprise to me.
I also really liked the glimpses into the Harlem of the time, with its bars, churches, numbers runners, small business men, and club scene. The book was written for a contemporaneous audience, but it now reads like a historical mystery, and a pretty good one at that. As Stanley Ellin’s long but insightful introduction warns, some of the language and mores are jarring today, but even those helped paint a picture that I found fascinating.
And finally, there’s a nice bonus at the end – a lengthy short story that also features Dart and Dr Archer. Taken together, the book and the story make me quite sad that author Rudolph Fisher died so young, before he was able to write more books in the series.
The Conjure-Man Dies is already out in the UK and Canada, and is coming on January 19, 2021 in the US.