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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

I. Variations on a genre

The “almost bitter murmur” in Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies

Mary Condé


Rudolph Fisher, in The Conjure Man Dies (1932), does not treat the traditional African American motif of passing, although he does treat disguise. Very unusually for a text of this period, he manages to integrate a highly developed degree of African American consciousness into a very accomplished detective story.

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1Although Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), for example, with its complete absence of mystery about the identity of the killer and its subversion of the legal process which condemns the killer, may be read as an antidetective novel, much African American fiction does have a strong detective element, and a sustained interest in detective skills. In Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), for example, the white novelist Hugh Wentworth treats himself as a failed detective in his inability to determine whether Clare Kendry is black or white (Larsen, 206); in Gwendolyn M. Parker’s These Same Long Bones (1994), an African American woman watches in amusement as a white councilman attempts to hone his detective skills while in conversation with her light-skinned husband (Parker, 142-143); in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), a novel whose Easy Rawlins is the direct descendant of Rudolph Fisher’s Bubber Brown (Gosselin, 343), it is the fusion of detective skills with the highly charged activity of passing for white which provides the dramatic climax of the narrative (Mosley, 208-209).

2Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies (1932) does not treat passing, although it does treat disguise, but, very unusually for a text of this period, it manages to integrate a highly developed degree of African American consciousness into a very accomplished detective story. Although Fisher is not mentioned in a recent study of “metaphysical” detective fiction, his novel conforms exactly to its editors’ definition, of fiction in which the sleuth finds himself confronting the insoluble mystery of his own identity (Merivale and Sweeney, 2).

3The Conjure Man Dies is still often regarded as the first African American detective novel (Lewis, 275, Davis 103, Perry, 1987, 254, Andrews, 240, Pepper, 79), but it is actually predated by Pauline E. Hopkins’s Hagar’s Daughter, published from 1901 to 1902 in the Colored American Magazine, J. E. Bruce’s The Black Sleuth, published from 1907 to 1909 in McGirt’s Magazine (Soitos 59), and Walter Adolphe Roberts’s The Haunting Hand (1926) and The Mind Reader (1929) (Bailey 53). Frankie Y. Bailey points out, however, that Roberts’s novels are African American only in terms of their authorship, whereas The Conjure Man Dies is “the first classic detective novel set in an urban community and featuring black protagonists” (Bailey, 54). Similarly, Stephen F. Soitos, one of Fisher’s most distinguished critics, observes that it is the first black detective novel to assert proudly its detective themes in a completely black environment with an all-black cast of characters (Soitos, 93). Even at its publication it was identified as a “decided novelty-an all Negro mystery in Harlem” (Cuppy, 8).

4The novel opens with the supposed murder of Frimbo, a fortune-teller, or conjure-man, which is effectively investigated by four detectives working together: Perry Dart, the only professional detective, his old friend doctor John Archer, Bubber Brown, an amateur detective, and, curiously enough, Frimbo himself, who investigates his own “murder”, his servant having been mistakenly killed in his place. The suspects are a pretty young woman called Martha Crouch, the wife of the undertaker Samuel Crouch who shares the building with Frimbo, Spider Webb, a numbers-runner who had come to Frimbo to find out what number he would bet on, and four clients of Frimbo’s: Doty Hicks, a notorious drug-addict who believes that Frimbo has cursed his brother, Easley Jones, a railroad man who had come to check on the fidelity of his wife in Chicago, Aramintha Snead, a woman seeking help about her violent husband, and Bubber Brown’s friend Jinx Jenkins, who had come to consult Frimbo about whether he would find a job. Jinx becomes the chief suspect when he is identified as the owner of a handkerchief which has been stuffed down the dead man’s throat, and Bubber joins the team of detectives to clear his friend’s name.

5After a complicated series of events involving Frimbo’s “scientific” claims to have risen from the dead (a feat parodied by Bubber Brown in a farcical chase which ends at the undertaker’s), and including the discovery of Frimbo’s secret burning of his servant’s body, the murderer is revealed as Samuel Crouch, disguised as Easley Jones, his motive being his wife Martha’s adultery with Frimbo. Frimbo exposes him at the cost of his own life, since Crouch shoots him dead at the moment of revelation, an action which Frimbo had foreseen.

6That The Conjure Man Dies is set in Harlem, a place described as the “unofficial capital for a people who, until its emergence, had none” (Chabot, 132), might immediately suggest some concern with racial issues (Kennedy, 45-46); Fisher himself proposed that Harlem and its black inhabitants were peculiarly appropriate for a detective story. Speaking in a radio interview in January 1933, after the publication of The Conjure Man Dies, he said:

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 mystery tradition – variety, color, mysticism, superstition, malice and violence (Perry, 1976, 67).

7The original title of the novel was A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (Davis, 103), and in this interview Fisher uses the word mystery four times not only to identify the tradition of the detective story, but to play both on the concept of the exotic, as in the flowery term “children of the night” for black people, and of unattainable knowledge. Doctor Archer’s scientific explanations are typically met with such reactions from his fellow investigator Detective Perry Dart as “Come on down, doc.... You’re talking to a cop now, not a college professor” (8), “Couldn’t you manage to say it in English, doc?” (9), “Gosh, doc, it would be so much easier in French. Say it in French” (112), and “Don’t you ever talk English?” (154).

8The space which combines the concepts of the exotic and the baffling is the conjure-man Frimbo’s reception room, with its collection of African artefacts. I cannot agree here with Soitos in his claim that “this visual display of African art objects suggests the beauty of these ancestral items as well as their importance to African American images of Africa” (Soitos, 108).

9This display includes a “murderous-looking” and “wicked looking” club, and is summarised as:

innumerable strange and awful shapes: gruesome black masks with hollow orbits, some smooth and bald, some horned and bearded; small misshapen statuettes of near-human creatures, resembling embryos dried and blackened in the sun, with closed bulbous eyes and great protruding lips; broad-bladed swords, slim arrows and jagged spearheads of forbidding designs (22).

10The suggestion here is not of beauty but of death and terror, similar to that of the undertaker’s quarters which also form part of the house. In terms of the plot this display is credible as presenting Frimbo’s professional credentials to his clients, and useful as an assortment which may include the murder weapon. In terms of “African American images of Africa” it tends only to confirm the doctor’s later diagnosis of Frimbo as “a very special kind of nut” (152). It plays an important part in what James de Jongh calls “the claustrophobic circle of the crime scene” (de Jongh, 44) in establishing another area of perplexity; Frimbo, as an African king, is as mysterious a being to the other characters as he is to the reader, and it is significant that he is found the most sympathetic by the character with whom he shares at least some of his esoteric knowledge, Doctor Archer (127). In so far as the other characters fail to understand him, they fail to feel any affection or admiration for him.

11An important element in the narrative is the repartee of Jinx Jenkins and Bubber Brown, a pair who do feel affection and admiration for each other. They had previously appeared in Fisher’s first novel, The Walls of Jericho, and one critic, writing in 1982, remarks severely of them here that they

are a comedy team who made the novel a very funny work in 1928, when it appeared. Unfortunately, styles in humor change, and the patter of Jinx and Bubber is boring to a modern reader (Davis, 101).

12Their patter, since much of it consists of gibes about blackness, might also be held to be embarrassing for a modern reader, and this might help to account for the comparative critical neglect of Fisher (Balshaw, 38), completely omitted, for example, from James O. Young’s Black Writers of the Thirties (1973) and Houston A. Baker Jr.’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987). Late in 1998 the opera singer Jessye Norman felt that even a joke about her weight conformed to a “degrading racist stereotype of a person of African-American heritage” (Gentleman, 16); Jinx and Bubber actually make jokes about blacks being descended from apes. However, as Frankie Y. Bailey observes, Jinx and Bubber “are more complex than the stock comic blacks of the period” (Bailey, 56); part of this complexity may lie in Fisher’s own analysis of their lack of understanding of the verbal abuse they heap on each other. In The Walls of Jericho he casts an almost anthropological eye on it, saying that:

As a matter of fact, the habitual dissension between these two was the symptom of a deep affection which neither, on question, would have admitted.... Words and gestures which in a different order of life would have required no suppression became with them necessarily inverted, found issue only by assuming a precisely opposite aspect, concealed a profound attachment by exposing an extravagant enmity. And this was a distortion of behaviour so completely imposed upon them by their traditions and society that even they themselves did not know they were masquerading (5).

13Fisher again uses the notion of masquerade when he comments on the pair’s quarrelling in The Conjure Man Dies, but this time in a manner particularly appropriate to a detective novel. He writes:

It was only because the hostility of these two was actually an elaborate masquerade, whereby they concealed the most genuine affection for each other, that they could come so close to blows that were never offered. Yet to the observer this mock antagonism would have appeared alarmingly real (20).

14Here Fisher reminds us of one of the basic principles of the detective story, that appearances can be deceptive. At the same time, he is offering us inside information on Harlem behaviour unavailable to the ignorant “observer”, with a sidelong glance at his own art as a novelist, just as he was to do in his radio interview with his observation that what goes on behind the scenes and beneath the dark skins of Harlem folk – fiction has not found much of that yet.

15What David Levering Lewis calls the “Amos ‘n’ Andy dialogue” of Jinx and Bubber (Lewis, 275) also performs the essential function of distracting us away from Samuel Crouch, besides establishing the issue of class, an issue not adequately examined in relation to the Harlem Renaissance (Gibson, 44). It is one of the aspects of the ‘decided novelty’ of this “all Negro myster” that the black characters’ different levels of social status are meticulously registered, implicitly arguing for the complexities and differences of the African American community.

16Since Fisher had previously been attacked by Du Bois for failing to “paint his own kind” in The Walls of Jericho (Wintz, 145), Doctor Archer is probably a response to this criticism. He is not only an able physician and an intellectual, but a benevolent authority figure: Fisher remarks casually of his first two patients one Sunday morning that the first pleaded a bad cold and got his liquor prescription, the second pleaded hard times and borrowed three dollars (119).

17As Fisher was also a doctor, and as Archer is the single character, apart from Frimbo, who has the best grasp of events, it is reasonable to suppose that Archer is the nearest approximation to the writer-figure in the novel. Detective Perry Dart is Archer’s social and intellectual inferior, as their names suggest, yet, when Dart is with his own men, “there was no doubt as to who was in command” (8). They are such a well-matched pair that Fisher used them again in a short story published a month after his early death, “John Archer’s Nose”, so called because it turns on Archer’s acute sense of smell as well as his detective skills.

18Archer points out to Dart in The Conjure Man Dies the similarity of their professions:

All my training and all my activities are those of a detective. The criminal I chase is as prime a rascal as you’ll ever find. Diseases are assailants, thieves, murderers. In each case I get, it’s my job to track disease down, identify it, and arrest it. What else is diagnosis and treatment?. (124)

19Typical of Archer is the pun on arrest, and typical of Fisher is the sly allusion to his reversal of the Holmes-Doctor Watson partnership, in Archer’s addressing of Dart as “my dear Sherlock” (“John Archer’s Nose”, 158). Fisher here also emphasizes their male companionship by identifying them as a pair of bachelors (“John Archer’s Nose”, 158), and I would argue that it is in these two partnerships, of Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins, and of Perry Dart and John Archer, with their suggestion of African American solidarity at home, that the interest of his novel lies. I cannot agree with John McCluskey, Jr. that Frimbo emerges “as the most interesting character in the tale” (McCluskey xxxiii). Even McCluskey says that “the African past as rendered through Frimbo’s memory appears over-romanticized” (xxxv); in fact it is rather dull, either because Fisher had no firsthand knowledge of it or no real emotional commitment to it or both.

20Stephen F. Soitos says of the house that is the principal setting of the novel that there is a swinging black and white sign that advertises both an undertaker and a spiritualist. The house stands for the divided African American people torn in two directions, one leading to their black roots in the African past and the other toward the Euro-Americentric values manifested by the culture in which they live (Soitos 107).

21However, Soitos’s argument that the sign divides into basement versus top floor, undertaker versus spiritualist, and murder versus redefinition of the African past “by way of a highly spiritualized consciousness” does not quite work. First of all, there is not one black and white sign; there are two signs, one black-on-white sign for the undertaker on the left, and one silver-on-onyx sign for N. Frimbo, Psychist on the right. The fact that the undertaker’s sign is “like a footnote” (2) not only implies that even though death comes as the end, it is paid relatively little attention, but is also Fisher’s covert reference to his unobtrusive murderer. Secondly, the basement doubles as the location of Frimbo’s death-centred activity of burning the body of his servant (147). Thirdly, the undertaker is himself connected to “a highly spiritualized consciousness” through the use of his meeting-room for church meetings on Sundays (146). More importantly, the undertaker’s corpses stored in the house and Frimbo’s African relics are depicted as equally sinister; both must have inspired the contemporary verdict on the novel: “It gives me the creeps and the shudders” (Hansen 23). Frimbo is at his most compelling when he “reads” Archer’s early struggles to become a doctor (132), affording an insight into the contemporary United States, not Africa; otherwise he is useful to the plot as a particularly mysterious “child of the night”, who claims to be able to rise from the dead. Frimbo himself attributes his ability to predict the future only to his powers of deduction, since he claims that people’s futures are inevitable given their past experiences, which he sees written on their faces (41). What, then, is written on Archer’s face, who, after practicing as a doctor for nearly ten years, is still paying back the debts he has incurred during his medical training, (132) is, as Frimbo says, “... the resentment you feel at this moment against your inability to do what you are mentally equipped to do” (133).

22There is therefore something bitterly ironic about Archer’s diagnosis of Frimbo as “a very special kind of nut” because he is paranoid about the racism he has suffered in the United States. This is brought out clearly in Archer’s exchange with Dart. Archer explains that Frimbo had a delusion of persecution because he found it difficult to get into college, and Dart asks, “Where’s the delusion in that?” Archer gives a thoroughly inadequate answer, which both Archer and Fisher must have known to be inadequate (even the wording of it being rather clumsy):

The delusion in that is that plenty of students the same color, but with more satisfactory formal preparation, have no such difficulty. Also that plenty the same color with unsatisfactory preparation don’t draw the same conclusion. And also that plenty without his generous inheritance of pigment and with unsatisfactory preparation have the same difficulty and don’t draw the same conclusion. Dart certainly finds this inadequate, and responds, “Call it a delusion if you want to...” (152-153).

23Archer’s refusal to give credence to a racism which he must certainly have known existed sheds light on an earlier exchange between Frimbo and Archer, in which they are discussing the causes of Frimbo’s “death”, which he suddenly claims to be of very little importance:

... Presently Frimbo added in an almost bitter murmur: “The rest of the world would do better to concern itself with why Frimbo was black.”
Dr. Archer shook hands and departed (136).

24Archer’s silent handshake and immediate departure signal a covert assent to Frimbo’s proposition but a refusal to engage with it. It is possible, however, to overemphasize a highly developed degree of African American consciousness in the novel at the expense of its artistry as a detective story: for example, Crouch boasts of his skill in treating the complexions of corpses, commenting, “... We can make the dark ones bright and the bright ones lighter, that seems to be the ambition in this community....” (56). We may be distracted, by this insight into an internalized racism, from realizing that Crouch has given us an important clue that he has the skill to change his “smooth, unblemished” face (52) into the light brown face spattered with black freckles of “Easley Jones” (77), whom he impersonates.

25Similarly, we should be distrustful of the observation that there is absolutely no use of four-letter words and no sex. Fisher, like Du Bois and other New Negro authors, believed in putting one’s best foot forward. There were some things that one just did not parade for the white folks to see (Davis, 103).

26Firstly, this assumes that Fisher was dominated by a consciousness of white readers, and secondly, it echoes Dart’s statement to Archer, “But sex has played no part in this picture” (172). Sex is the motive for Frimbo’s final murder, and so Fisher is naturally trying to steer us away from it, even though he does risk a daring double-bluff in the scene in which Archer and Dart inspect Frimbo’s bedroom and note the lack of frills, perfume, and photographs of women. This lack leads Dart to conclude, “Woman hater”, but Archer adds, “Or a Lothario of the deepest dye” (15). Even here, we may be diverted from the truth, that Frimbo has been having an affair with a married woman, which will lead to his death, by Dart’s response, “I get the deep dye, he was blacker’n me.” (15)

27In a masterly way Fisher also discloses the key to the mystery on the very first page, in the words of “the moment’s most popular song”, heard on Harlem’s Seventh Avenue:

I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you
I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you
What is it that you’ve got
Makes my wife think you so hot?
Ο you dog, I’ll be glad when you’re gone! (1)

28This song is heard again later in the story, sung by a girl in a nightclub, with what Fisher wittily calls “an irrelevance which no one seemed to mind” (63), or, to put it another way, a relevance which no one seems to notice. The song frames the novel, for it reappears on the last page, and our attention is drawn to its significance by Bubber Brown in the last spoken words of the story (186) as Fisher congratulates himself on his own ingenuity.

29It is clear from Martha Crouch’s exclamation at the end of the novel that she has loved Frimbo passionately (185), although of course this is a passion which Fisher, as a detective story writer, is bound to conceal. Though Davis is technically correct that there is “no sex” in the novel, it does include the murder of a man on a sexual pretext, the real motive being the rivalry between two gambling syndicates (114, 122), an illicit encounter with a young woman described by the onlooker, Bubber, as looking “ike she was gettin’ ready to try on a bathin’ suit and meant to have a perfect fit” (31), and the appearance of an extremely sexy girl in a nightclub:

Her flame chiffon dress, normally long and flowing, had been caught up bit by bit in her palms, which rested nonchalantly on her hips, until now it was not so much a dress as a sash, gathered about her waist. The long, shapely, smooth brown limbs below were bare from trim slippers to sash, and only a bit of silken underwear stood between her modesty and surrounding admiration. (62)

30Bernard W. Bell calls The Conjure Man Dies “an incongruous combination of mystery and low comedy” (Bell, 141), but it is perhaps an even more incongruous combination of mystery, comedy, sexuality, and subdued social comment; action of the text is often parodied within it, as when Bubber seems to imitate Frimbo in rising from the dead, but it is in comic dialogue that Fisher excels. Bubber and Jinx may appeal to white readers as entertainers, but they are not presented as stupid, but rather as witty and ingenious; Bubber is “superstitious but street-wise” (Soitos, 104), and the repartee in which he indulges with Jinx, far from being boring to a modern reader, is now recognized as an art form. With Frimbo and Archer, Fisher has done far more than simply make the faces black, as Chester Himes once put it (Rabinowitz, 19), but has produced a detective partnership unexpectedly complex and subversive for a novel of 1932, and with Bubber and Jinx a relationship unexpectedly poignant.

31Fisher’s characters exhibit a constant consciousness of their blackness, whether seriously, sensuously, or humorously. Africa, however, is seen as other, sinister, and threatening as a source of racial discontent. John Archer, the chief authority figure in the novel, and the character who most nearly approaches Fisher himself, has, indeed, decided against racial discontent, which is triply subdued in Frimbo’s (unanswered) “almost bitter murmur”, as uttered by a character stigmatized as mad, as only approaching bitterness, and as a tentative suggestion. It may be that in the sequel Fisher had begun at the time of his death, Thus Spake the Prophet (McCluskey xxxvi), the murmur would have become a little louder. In The Conjure Man Dies it is a disturbing eddy beneath the surface of a very accomplished detective novel.


Works Cited

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Taught in the U. S. at the University of Vermont, then at the University of Leicester, U. K. She now is a Senior Lecturer in English at Queen Mary, University of London. She is co-editor with Thorunn Lonsdale of Caribbean Women Writers: Fiction in English (Macmillan, 1999), and her research interests are in the short story, African American women’s fiction and contemporary Canadian women’s fiction.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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