Elementary, Dear Harlem: On the First African-American Detective Novel

African-American authored mystery fiction dates back to the turn of the 19th century.

By Scott AdlerbergFebruary 24, 2016

AFRICAN AMERICAN–AUTHORED mystery fiction dates back to the turn of the 19th century. The first known example is Pauline Hopkins’s Hagar’s Daughter (1901-1902), serialized in Colored American Magazine. The story takes place on a Maryland plantation in Washington, DC between 1860 and 1880 and features a black maid as the detective. Next came John E. Bruce’s Black Sleuth (1907-1909), which McGirt’s Magazine ran in successive editions. In this book, the sleuth is a West African man who travels to the United States and then Europe and, a professional, works for the International Detective Agency. Both these tales are really proto-mysteries, mixing blatant social commentary into their whodunit plots, but they serve as important historical guideposts in the evolution of black mystery fiction. It would not be until 1932, however, during the Harlem Renaissance, that the first full-fledged, non-serialized detective novel by an African American would be published. This was Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem. Fisher, a physician by trade, would die two years later, at age 37, but the one mystery novel he left behind is a remarkable work.

In its set-up and overall structure, The Conjure-Man Dies reads as a classic detective novel of the Golden Age era. A mysterious African man named Frimbo works as a fortune-teller in Harlem. Upstairs above a funeral home he has a suite where he receives clients. He has a waiting room and a dimly lit receiving room. One by one, clients come to sit in a chair facing him and hear him dispense his wisdom. A client named Jinx Jenkins enters, seats himself opposite Frimbo, and proceeds to talk with the “psychist.” Frimbo dominates the conversation. Suddenly, though, Frimbo says something about “not bein’ able to see” and goes silent. Frightened, Jinx leaps up and turns the one light in the room, shining on him until then, on Frimbo. To his astonishment, he finds that Frimbo is dead. The ensuing investigation quickly reveals that Frimbo was murdered, but how could he have been killed before a witness, in the middle of a conversation? It is an impossible crime scenario in line with the era’s English mystery novels — by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many others — and the reader quickly recognizes that Fisher knew these writers and this brand of detective fiction well. As in an English country house mystery, a large portion of the novel takes place at the crime scene, with the investigators questioning people, including a small circle of suspects. But Fisher’s book is no mere copy of a then popular form. Fisher writes an engrossing mystery complete with clues, red herrings, and surprising plot twists, and adapts it to his own concerns as a Harlem Renaissance novelist.

For starters, there are his detectives, both black. Harlem physician John Archer appears first, when Jinx’s friend Bubber Brown summons him from his office to come check Frimbo’s body, and Fisher makes it clear we’ll be dealing with a man both intellectual and eccentric:

“Now this case” — the doctor dropped the gauze dressing into his bag — “even robbed of its material promise still bids well to feed my native curiosity — if not my cellular protoplasm. You follow me, of course?”​

​New York City police detective Perry Dart is introduced next; he will lead the investigation.   Where Archer is light-skinned, Dart is not, but in the self-enclosed world that is Harlem, Dart’s blackness helps him professionally.

Of the ten Negro members of Harlem’s police force to be promoted from the rank of patrolman to that of detective, Perry Dart was one of the first. As if the city administration had wished to leave no doubt in the public mind as to its intention in the matter, they had chosen, in him, a man who could not have been under any circumstances mistaken for aught but a Negro; or perhaps, as Dart’s intimates insisted, they had chosen him because his generously pigmented skin rendered him invisible in the dark, a conceivably great advantage to a detective who did most of his work at night. In any case, the somber hue of his integument in no wise reflected the complexion of his brain, which was bright, alert, and practical within such territory as it embraced.

​Four uniformed cops are assigned to the case with Dart, but he enlists Archer’s aid also. He already knows Archer, and the two have an obvious mutual respect. A version of the Holmes-Watson detective fiction model (though Dart and Archer are mental equals), the police officer and the medical man complement each other. Archer provides the scientific expertise and speculation; Dart, grounded and open-minded, coordinates the investigation and uses his intimate knowledge of Harlem, from its upscale sections to its low-down bars, to follow up on leads. Both men are articulate and carry themselves with a low-key confidence that reflects a comfort they feel inhabiting their world. That world is what can only be called a black world within a greater white-run world. Harlem is a black city within the entirety of New York City. It’s noteworthy that neither man reports to a white authority figure of any kind. Archer has his own practice, and the white officers who we know must exist in the police hierarchy do not figure here. Unlike Chester Himes, whose Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson report to the white Lieutenant Anderson and who often function as intermediaries, translators even, between their frenetic Harlem world and the world beyond Harlem, Fisher uses his mystery novel to concentrate on black life only. There are no white characters in The Conjure-Man Dies. But what Fisher does is use his mystery plot and his characters as a way to examine the social layers, language differences, and belief systems of a community. It’s a community that had not then been explored much by those living outside it.

In a 1933 radio interview cited in The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction, Fisher stated his thoughts on the subject:

Darkness and mystery go together, don’t they? The children of the night — and I say this in all seriousness — are children of mystery. The very setting is mystery — outsiders know nothing of Harlem life as it really is … what goes on behind the scenes and beneath the dark skins of Harlem folk — fiction has not found much of that yet. And much of it is perfectly in tune with the best of the mystery tradition — variety, color, mysticism, superstition, malice and violence.

Fisher invests the book with all these qualities, many of which animate his title character particularly. Frimbo is a complicated human being, a man of contradictions. In Africa, he inherited from his father the position of tribal king. He knew the bush well and describes for Doctor Archer age-old ceremonies, complete with drums and fire, he oversaw. But after emigrating to the United States, he attended and graduated from Harvard University. Despite his formidable intellect, he installed himself in Harlem telling people’s fortunes, using his “exotic” African background for full effect. Not that he believes the hokum he spouts; he is forthright with Archer in acknowledging his methods:

“But — how? [Archer asks] The accuracy of detail —”

“Even if it were as curious as you suggest, it should occasion no great wonder …”

He paused while the doctor sat speechless. Then he continued:

“But this is much simpler than that … I have merely practiced observation to a degree of great proficiency; that, together with complete faith in a certain philosophy enables me to do what seems mystifying. I can study a person’s face and tell his past, present, and future.”

Sherlock Holmes could not demystify his “powers” any better. There is no doubt that Frimbo values science and rationality. At times, he goes out of his way to debunk the illusions he sets up. But unlike Holmes, Frimbo draws upon Western and non-Western modes of thinking. Like many Black people in the United States, whether African or African-American, he has an identity that’s fluid, that adapts itself to surroundings and circumstances. As the novel shows, he can be an exceedingly tricky person; not everything you see with Frimbo defines who he is in full.

Doctor Archer is similar. He’s at ease in his own skin, but his calm surface obscures what he must have gone through to become a successful doctor. It’s a journey Frimbo summarizes for him:

“Your father was a minister?”

“Yes. He died shortly after I finished college. I wanted to study medicine. One of my profs had a wealthy friend. He saw me through … Hardly dramatic, is it?”

“You have omitted the drama, my friend. Your father’s struggle to educate you, his clinging on to life just to see you complete a college training — which had been denied him; your desperate helplessness, facing the probability of not being able to go into medicine; the impending alternative of teaching school in some Negro academy … the summers of menial work as a bell boy or waiter or porter somewhere, constantly taking orders from your inferiors, both white and black; the license to practice — and nothing to start on; more menial work — months of it — to accumulate enough for a down payment on your equipment … the resentment you feel at this moment against your inability to do what you are mentally equipped to do. If drama is struggle, my friend, your life is a perfect play.”

But not everyone has gotten where Archer or Frimbo or Dart have. Along with these three educated, middle-class characters, Fisher gives us people from the other side of Harlem, so to speak. The seven suspects in the case — the people who were in Frimbo’s waiting room when the murder occurred — all come from different backgrounds and have varying levels of education. Jinx Jenkins and Bubber Brown, who serve as humorous foils to Archer and Dart, are colorful, vulgar street guys who frequently exchange comic insults. One man, Doty Hicks, may have had it in for Frimbo because he believed Frimbo put a malevolent curse on his brother; another, Spider Webb, works for a Harlem numbers boss that Frimbo may have angered. There’s a railway line train porter among the group — working-class, exemplary job record — and two women, one the wife of the building’s funeral home owner and the other a devoutly religious woman, the kind who never misses a Sunday at church. Through this group and the scenes outside Frimbo’s apartment, in blackjack dens, rooms where congregations meet, and the ever volatile streets, we get a full picture of the community. Rationalism, superstition, religiosity, violence, humor, desperation — all mix. While neither Frimbo, Archer nor Dart sound “black” when they talk, other characters speak the common vernacular.

Fisher had come in for some criticism from W.E.B. Du Bois for his use of black talk and street level characters in his 1928 novel, The Walls of Jericho. In his 1926 essay, “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois had said that African-American art should not only be as skillful and beautiful as art produced by any culture, but should also serve as propaganda for, as he put it, “the race.” Of utmost importance was to focus on representing the racism and difficulties Black Americans faced and to portray the Talented Tenth, a slim percentage of the African-American population that was highly educated and socially mobile and would, in theory, help uplift all African-Americans. As a well-educated doctor, Fisher (like Du Bois) was of the Talented Tenth, but he stuck to his guns as a writer. He followed no underlying concept. He presented Harlem people as he saw them, in all their variety and comicality. 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). As Stephen Soitos in his book The Blues Detective notes, citing a preface to The Conjure-Man Dies by mystery writer Stanley Ellin, “Fisher’s extremely complex plotting and his occasionally too-pedantic writing of descriptive and expository passages is in the classical mode. But the characters, their broad range of background, and the handling of dialogue are wholly of Hammett’s realistic school.” However he came to it, Fisher works a fusion of mystery novel styles, and that fusion makes for a fascinating tonal blend.

Fisher is innovative also. He keeps the reader off-balance. In a way I haven’t quite encountered before, he has a character who at different times is either a victim, a suspect, or a detective — or any combination thereof — and, ever playful, Fisher goes so far as to add a self-referential touch that feels postmodern. At the crime scene, John Archer and the medical examiner talk, commenting on how mystery tales function:

“Well, you know how the books tell it. It’s always the least likely person.”

“In that case, evidence or no evidence, the guilty party is Mrs. Aramintha Snead, devout church-member and long-suffering housewife.”

“Oh no. You’ve very adroitly neglected to mention the really most unlikely person. I’m thinking of the physician on the case. Dr. Archer is the name, I believe?”

“Quite possible,” Dr. Archer returned gravely. “Motive — professional jealousy.”

 “If that theory applied here,” the medical examiner laughed. “I’d have to clear out myself. I’m obviously the murderer. I was ten miles away when it happened.”

… “Some day I’m going to write a murder mystery,” mused Dr. Archer, “that will baffle and astound the world. The murderer will turn out to be the most likely suspect.”

“You’d never write another,” said the medical examiner.

It’s fair to say few people will guess who killed Frimbo. But before solution time is reached, the reader will have grasped that the murder itself was not as it appeared. Frimbo is an illusionist in the Western sense, using light, shadow, and mechanics to achieve his aims, and he’s also an African trickster figure in how he flouts norms and conventions. Was anyone even murdered? Did the dead come back to life? No worries — this is not a mystery novel that relies on the supernatural. All is explained in rational terms at the end. Though Dart and Archer and their volunteer assistant Bubber Brown lead the way to the solution, none of them fully solves the crime or sets the trap that unmasks the killer. The ending is a tad farfetched, but that comes as no shock. Convoluted resolutions go with classic era mysteries. In The Conjure-Man Dies, Rudolph Fisher wrote an enjoyable mystery that’s compelling, too, as a close look at the urban Black world of his time, and I only wish he’d lived longer to write more Dart and Archer books. He had sequels planned, but beyond a 1935 posthumously published story featuring the two, “John Archer’s Nose,” he wrote no other crime fiction. Still, Fisher’s influence cannot be underestimated. In how he created his rich, funny mini-world of Harlem, with its myriad types and characters from up and down the social and economic ladder, he paved the way for the Harlem novels of Chester Himes. In how he depicted Harlem’s people as he actually saw them, and not as representatives of a theory, he wrote something that has lasted. Seventy-odd years after its publication, The Conjure-Man Dies still makes the reader laugh and turn the pages quickly. It still feels fresh.


Scott Adlerberg is the author of the novel Spiders and Flies and the novella Jungle Horses.

LARB Contributor

Scott Adlerberg is the author of the novel Spiders and Flies and the novella Jungle Horses. He hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Bryant Park in Manhattan and blogs at scottadlerberg.blogspot.com.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!