Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As the first known mystery novel written by an African American, The Conjure-Man Dies launched a new genre in the African American literary tradition. Many African American novels of the 1920’s and 1930’s were significantly a part of the struggle to “uplift the race.” Rudolph Fisher dared to do something different, to create a range of possibilities for black narrative expression. In exploring new terrain, he also revisited many areas and concerns that are staples of African American literature.

The novel describes common black urban experience, one major line of development of the African American novel of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Conjure-Man Dies is a companion piece to such novels as Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928), Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), and Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter (1930), which detail the rich layers of urban black experience and chart the difficult conflicts that characters confront in their struggles to live rewarding lives.

As a black mystery novel, The Conjure-Man Dies looks forward to the detective fiction of Chester Himes and even, in exploration of new literary territory, anticipates the novels of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and the science-fiction novels of Samuel Delany and Octavia E. Butler.

Most initial reviews of the novel remarked that it was a mystery of the first class. Dissenting reviews usually focused on the fact that the mystery in Fisher’s novel included characters heretofore not considered a part of the mystery genre: African Americans. Some reviewers did not know how to evaluate or appreciate Frimbo, the dark and mysterious African who is at the novel’s center.