(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Conjure-Man Dies is a complex mystery story interweaving a number of characters who might normally have little contact with one another. For various reasons, the major suspects have all come to seek advice from N’Gana Frimbo, an African trained at Harvard University who settled in Harlem to practice his conjuring and fortune-telling. In the waiting room of Frimbo’s apartment and in the actual meeting chamber where Frimbo conducts his practice, characters confront the darkness that is Frimbo. Jinx Jenkins, the last of the characters to have an interview with Frimbo, realizes that Frimbo is dead, runs to the waiting room, and calls for his friend Bubber Brown. The doctor and the police detective then enter the story.

Perry Dart, a police detective, and John Archer, a physician, lead the investigation. The novel’s plot is one of ascertaining who murdered Frimbo. Like any mystery story, people and events are not always what they appear to be. Dart is sensitive to this possibility and begins a process of questioning suspects in order to determine the culprit. Dart and Archer know immediately that their task is not only to determine the murderer but also to make some sense of who Frimbo is so that a motive for his murder might be found.

The novel accumulates detail on top of detail. Initial character descriptions become more fully textured, and the actions of characters who apparently are only minor become potential sources of information needed to solve the murder. Both Dart and Archer, as they pull the pieces of the murder together, reveal aspects of their personalities to each other and to the major suspects. In all this detective work, Dart and Archer get to know the suspects in ways they would not have otherwise, and both become fascinated with Frimbo.

The major vehicle Dart and Archer use to acquire information is questioning of each of the suspects in Frimbo’s dark, velvet-draped meeting room. Dart sits at one end of the table, shrouded in darkness,...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, Rudolph Fisher combines his talent and comedic wit with his knowledge of medicine to produce the first known detective novel by an African American. Fisher introduces a variety of Harlem characters, including Jinx Jenkins and Bubber Brown, unemployed furniture movers who also appear in The Walls of Jericho (1928). Other characters include John Archer, the doctor who helps Harlem police solve the murder.

The complex plot highlights characters and settings popularized in Fisher’s works. When Jinx and Bubber discover the murdered conjure man, they become suspects with several others: a numbers-runner, Spider Webb, who works in Harlem’s illegal lottery system; a drug addict named Doty Hicks; a railroad worker; and a church worker. Mr. Crouch, mortician and owner of the building in which the conjure man is a tenant, and Crouch’s wife Martha are quickly dismissed as suspects. When the corpse disappears and reappears as the live conjure man, Archer and Detective Dart know that there has been a murder but are unable to find the corpse. The conjure man is seen burning a body in the furnace. The body is of his servant, who was mistakenly killed instead of the conjure man. The conjure man adamantly insists he is innocent and helps to set a trap for the real murderer, but the conjure man is fatally shot by the railroad worker. Distraught that he has killed her lover, Martha assaults the...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Berghahn, Marion. Images of Africa in Black American Literature. London: Macmillan, 1977. A consideration of the image of the African in history and in literature. The first part of the book discusses the image of Africans in the white imagination. The chapter titled “The ’Harlem Renaissance’” presents useful information that helps one to understand a character such as N’Gana Frimbo.

De Jongh, James. Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Discusses major historical and literary events that helped to make Harlem a culture capital for African Americans. Contains a fine, but relatively short, discussion of The Conjure-Man Dies that emphasizes the novel’s ability to mediate black experience in Harlem of the 1930’s.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1975. Gives a good general overview of the development of the African American novel. Two chapters help to position Rudolph Fisher’s work: “The New Negro” and “The Outsider.” Gayle argues that Fisher’s novels advance many of Marcus Garvey’s ideas.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. One of the most readable general...

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