The Conjure-Man Dies

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE CONJURE-MAN DIES (1932) was long thought to be the first detective novel by an African American, although scholars have since discovered an earlier African-American novel in this genre, published in 1901. As an important novel in the African-American detective tradition, THE CONJURE-MAN DIES incorporates black vernaculars such as music, language, and hoodoo into a mystery format.

Frimbo, a black conjure man, is killed during a seance in his apartment over an undertaker on 130th Street. Five suspects (two women and three men) plus Frimbo’s personal servant are present. Four of the suspects are waiting in an anteroom decorated with African artifacts. Perry Dart, New York City’s only black homicide detective, teams up with physician John Archer to solve the case. Halfway through the investigation, Frimbo reappears, raised if by magic from the dead. Who was killed? Frimbo springs from the African Trickster tradition, but the novel resembles in many ways a locked room mystery of the English manor house style, transposed to Harlem. However, its use of Harlem Renaissance themes of black pride and Afrocentrism, combined with African-American street scenes and characters, make its themes socially conscious in the hardboiled tradition.

Perry Dart and John Archer learn that Frimbo is an African prince with a degree from Harvard who uses hoodoo to effect positive change in his client’s lives. The “murder” of Frimbo leads to an investigation of an individual’s past that reflects the collective past of African Americans. Along the way we learn something about the social and racial dynamics of Harlem and the emerging importance of the Harlem...

(The entire section is 682 words.)