I was quite excited when I discovered that this sole mystery novel from Rudolph Fisher was to be republished under the revived Detective Club imprint. To my understanding it had impossible crime overtones with a vanishing body, and GAD fiction doesn’t exactly offer up a swathe of BAME authors, so this account of 1930s Harlem promised to fulfil all sorts of fascinating niches — not least how a black author would represent the experience of being a black man in America when times were not as enlightened as we hope them to be now. But, first things first, yes we do get an impossibly-vanishing body, provided by a Red Widow Murders-esque “How could he be talking if he was dead?” impossible murder for which there was no time in which it could have been committed; so do we have a classic on our hands?
It’s an interesting read, no doubt, and feels like a tentative step into the realm of detective fiction that really achieves the courage of its convictions at certain times: an atmospheric setting and discovery of his murder (forgive the Carr reference again, but it’s a bit Judas Window, too, in that we’re trusting the person in the room at the time isn’t guilty…) brings medical doctor John Archer to the scene where he meets the detective of the piece, from which point the two work in consort to unpick the mystery. Possibly the initial descriptive passages are a little too detailed, but once the plot gets moving and the investigation gets underway it becomes clear how well Fisher is going to handle things.
Of particular interest is how head-on he approaches the racial attitudes of the time, with it being suggested that the black Detective Perry Dart was promoted to such because “his generously pigmented skin rendered him invisible in the dark,” or having two characters arguing about how ugly one of them is, only for him to retort that his friend “ought to be back in Africa with the other dumb boogies”. Even more interestingly is how unsensationally, almost casually, this whole element is handled: Fisher is aware of the prejudice and inequality of the time in which he’s writing — he couldn’t not be — and chooses to simply treat it as a matter of fact around his mystery. It might be best summed up in the following exchange:
“What kind o’ detective is you?”
“A police detective, madam, of the City of New York. And please let me ask the questions while you confine yourself to the answers.”
“Police detective? ‘Tain’t so. They don’t have no black detectives.”
“Your informant was either ignorant or colour-blind, madam. Now would you care to give your answers here or around at the police station?”
It is true that Fisher distinguishes between his professional and, I dunno, let’s say additional characters by writing the speech of the former in ‘proper’ English and of the latter in near-phonetic patois — if he didn’t share his characters’ race we’d be wincing on a regular basis and questioning the correctness of doing so — but this works very well when venturing out into wider Harlem and encountering the people we do there. It displays an efficiency with character that’s hard to deny, but would be difficult to sanction this from a white author, and the casual attitude with which I accept this kind of thing in novels of this period took a long, hard look at itself during parts of this narrative.
However, the plot is very adroitly handled, with a few asides that feel more akin to a thriller than a straight novel of detection, and Fisher works in a good dose of superstition — though this leaves a fairly large question about our victim unsatisfactorily unresolved — gang warfare, racketeering, and a surprisingly brisk form of humour that rings true of these characters finding themselves in the situations described. None of it feels unduly forced, either, and even if a little bit of convenient placement is at hand to move the plot forrader, it’s clearly enough a product of its time — witness the discussion on blood typing, the treatise on dentistry, or the repeated use of the exclamation “Judas Priest!” — to forgive such requirements in a first novel (though, the narrative coverage that grinds everything to a halt in chapter 19 is an odd one…).
The solutions, then, are…mixed. There’s a lovely aspect of, let’s say, unawareness in the actual commission of the murder which rounds the whole things out brilliantly, but in order for that to be the case, and for the disappearing body to fit into things, we require an almost Bond Villain level of organisation which sort of comes out of nowhere. It’s fine, and there’s been so much going on before the reveal that’s immensely clever and a real joy to discover — not least the relationship of respect and admiration that burgeons between Dart and Archer, one of the great partnerships that never got to be — but there can be no doubt that easily half the people who read this for the impossible nature of the puzzle will come away a little underwhelmed.
It is, though, quite a loss to the genre that Fisher died a couple of years after this was published, as I believe he could have gone on to very good things. And if this is all we have to remember him by — it also contains the story ‘John Archer’s Nose’, which I shall discuss another time — then I say we make the most of it.
The LA Review of Books: In fact, in this aspect, as far as crime fiction goes, The Conjure-Man Dies gets down and dirty in a style more in the American hardboiled fashion than the British country house fashion. And it does seem likely that Fisher, besides reading Agatha Christie, read Dashiell Hammett and other early hardboiled writers. One even wonders whether the name John Archer comes from Sam Spade’s partner in The Maltese Falcon (which would mean Fisher beat Ross Macdonald to the punch).
In other news, on the back of TomCat’s rundown of the reprint boom curently making life exciting for those of us who lack infinite time and money to track down classic detective fiction, I’ve just found out that the Detective Club imprint will be publishing Philip Macdonald’s impossible crime novel Rynox (1930) later this year — so that’s one more from this list for those of us who are counting… Happy days!