Book Review: The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

The Conjure-Man Dies, written by Rudolph Fisher and first published in 1932, is a classic murder mystery novel set in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. The novel features a diverse cast of characters and explores themes of race, class, and identity while keeping readers on the edge of their seats with its intricate plot and surprising twists.

The story begins with the murder of a wealthy African immigrant named N’Gana Frimbo, who has recently arrived in Harlem and quickly made a name for himself as a powerful “conjure-man” or traditional healer. Frimbo is found dead in his apartment, and it quickly becomes clear that the murder was committed using one of his own magical spells. As the police investigate the crime, they encounter a wide range of suspects, including Frimbo’s business partners, former lovers, and clients who may have been unhappy with his services.

The novel is notable for its use of multiple narrators, including a police detective, a journalist, and several members of Harlem’s African American community. Each narrator provides a different perspective on the case, revealing their own biases and motivations and adding complexity to the story. The most memorable of these narrators is the character of Jinx Jenkins, a young African American man who is both a suspect in the murder and an amateur detective determined to clear his own name. Jinx is a fascinating character who embodies many of the contradictions of Harlem’s African American community at the time: he is both proud of his identity and frustrated by the limitations placed on him by a society that often views him as a criminal or a novelty.

One of the strengths of The Conjure-Man Dies is the way that it uses the murder mystery genre to explore larger social issues. Fisher uses the story of Frimbo’s murder as a lens through which to examine the complex relationships between different groups of people in Harlem, including African Americans, immigrants, and white outsiders. The novel also delves into questions of power and control, particularly as they relate to traditional African beliefs and practices. Frimbo’s status as a “conjure-man” is both a source of pride and a point of controversy within the African American community, with some seeing him as a powerful spiritual leader and others dismissing him as a charlatan. Through the various characters’ interactions with Frimbo and his legacy, the novel raises important questions about the role of religion, magic, and tradition in shaping individual and collective identities.

Another strength of the novel is its vivid depiction of Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Fisher brings the neighborhood to life with detailed descriptions of its streets, buildings, and people. He also captures the energy and creativity of the artistic and intellectual movements that were flourishing in Harlem at the time, including references to real-life figures such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The novel’s setting is not just a backdrop for the story but an integral part of its themes and characters, highlighting the diversity and complexity of the African American experience in the early 20th century.

There are a few aspects of the novel that may be less appealing to modern readers. The use of African American dialect and slang can be difficult to follow at times, particularly for non-native speakers of English. Additionally, some of the novel’s attitudes towards race and gender may be seen as outdated by contemporary standards. For example, the novel portrays African American women as either virtuous and self-sacrificing or conniving and manipulative, without much nuance or complexity.

Overall, The Conjure-Man Dies is a fascinating and engaging novel that combines the elements of a classic murder mystery with a nuanced exploration of African American identity and culture. Fisher’s writing is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and his characters are memorable and well-drawn. You can purchase your copy of The Conjure-Man Dies from Amazon here.


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