New from Library’s Crime Classics: “The Conjure-Man Dies”

Colorful, Picasso-like face looking at viewer

“The Conjure-Man Dies,” by Rudolph Fisher. Cover art is adapted from a photograph by Camilo José Vergara. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post by Zach Klitzman, the editorial assistant in the Library’s Publishing Office.

The latest entry in the Library’s acclaimed Crime Classics series is a new edition of “The Conjure-Man Dies,” a product of the Harlem Renaissance and the most important work of long-overlooked writer Rudolph Fisher. First published in 1932, the book was the first full-length mystery novel to feature an all-Black cast of characters, including detectives, suspects and victims.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, African Americans in New York and other cities produced a major outpouring of arts, music and literature. This explosion of culture—nicknamed the Harlem Renaissance after the New York neighborhood where many of these artists lived—was the result of several factors, most notably the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans sought job opportunities in northern cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Many luminaries from this period, such as poet Langston Hughes, musician Duke Ellington, actor Paul Robeson, writer Zora Neale Hurston and singer Bessie Smith remain among the most celebrated figures in American arts and letters.

Fisher, though, faded from view as the years passed.

A writer, orator, musician, physician and radiologist, he was a renaissance man. Hughes, a close friend, noted in his autobiography that Fisher “frightened me a little, because he could think of the most incisively clever things to say—and I could never think of anything to answer.” Fisher passed away from cancer at the age of 37 in 1934, cutting short a promising career.

“Conjure-Man” is a fitting title for the Crime Classics series. Launched in 2020, the series features some of the finest American crime writing from the 1860s to the 1960s. Drawn from the Library’s collections, each volume includes the original text, an introduction, author bio, notes, recommendations for further reading and suggested discussion questions from mystery expert Leslie S. Klinger. This special edition also features exclusive reminiscences from Fisher’s granddaughter, Laurel Fisher.

The book’s plot: N’Gana Frimbo, the titular “conjure-man” from Africa, is discovered bludgeoned in his consultation room. Perry Dart, one of Harlem’s few Black police detectives, arrives to investigate. Together with Dr. Archer, a physician from across the street, Dart is determined to solve the mystery, while Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins, local hustlers keen to clear themselves of suspicion of murder, undertake their own investigations. The book is full of local slang, what Fisher called “Harlemese,” adding a distinct authenticity to this groundbreaking novel.

Fisher received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown University (he graduated Phi Beta Kappa) before graduating from Howard University’s medical school with more honors in 1924. He soon moved to Long Island with his family, where he began a medical practice specializing in X-rays. The same year he graduated medical school, he published his first piece of fiction, a short story entitled “The City of Refuge” in the Atlantic Monthly. He published 15 more short stories, which were highly regarded.

Well-dressed actors on stage in a living room setting.

A Federal Theater Project photograph from the 1936 production of “The Conjure-Man Dies.” Music Division.

His first novel, “The Walls of Jericho,” appeared in 1928. The novel centers on a Black lawyer who buys a house in a white neighborhood bordering Harlem, and the ensuing antagonism of his new neighbors. The tone is more satirical than menacing, with Bubber and Jinx also making appearances, prefacing their comic turns in “Conjure-Man.”

When Fisher died in 1934, he was in the middle of adapting “Conjure-Man” as a stage play. Two years later, the play debuted at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, produced by the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. The FTP was a New Deal program that provided grants to actors, directors, and other theater professionals from 1935 to 1939. Two dozen photos of the play can be seen as part of the Federal Theater Project’s online collections.

Black and white text of a play program.

Detail from the playbill of “The Conjure-Man Dies.” Music Division.

The Library is home to a wealth of resources related to the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz enthusiasts will dig William P. Gottlieb’s photographs of musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Ten of Zora Neale Hurston’s original plays are held in the Manuscript Division. And the Federal Writer’s Project contains many first-hand narratives of life in Harlem during this time period. For more Harlem Renaissance material, check out this research guide.

Crime Classics are published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in association with the Library of Congress. The Conjure-Man Dies, published on April 5, is available in softcover ($14.99) from booksellers worldwide, including the Library of Congress shop.

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