Friday, 25 August 2017

Forgotten Book - The Conjure-Man Dies

The Detective Story Club imprint has, since its welcome recent revival by Harper Collins, seen some fascinating titles come back to life. I've enjoyed my own involvement, writing intros for books by authors as diverse as Hugh Conway, Edgar Wallace, and E.C. Bentley, and I've enjoyed equally reading some books that are entirely new to me, by authors such as Vernon Loder.

A particular example is The Conjure-Man Dies, sub-titled "A Harlem Mystery". The author is Rudolph Fisher, and there is an excellent intro by that very fine writer Stanley Ellin, who is perhaps best remembered for his brilliant short stories, although he was no mean novelist. As he says, the book is "highly readable, wholly entertaining."

The book was, as far as is known, the first detective novel written by an African-American. His name was Rudolph Fisher, and he had previously one mainstream novel. By profession, he was a doctor, and his interest in the potential of science as an aid to detection is very much in tune with the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and Richard Austin Freeman in Britain. The reason that, despite his considerable gifts as a writer, his name has been more or less forgotten, is that he died all too young. He was born in 1897, this book appeared in 1932, and he died in 1934. Very sad.

The story is a good one, dealing with the death, in exotic and highly mystifying circumstances, of Frimbo, a "psychist". The official detective, Perry Dart, is assisted by John Archer, a doctor, in a pleasing variation on the Holmes-Watson partnership: both are good characters. This edition carries an extremely welcome bonus, a short story called "John Archer's Nose" which was published just after Fisher's death. As Ellin says, this novel offers not merely a good mystery puzzle but also a fascinating social document. Recommended.

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