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  • Harlemite, Detective, African? The Many Selves of Rudolph Fisher’s Conjure-Man Dies
  • Emad Mirmotahari (bio)

A man sees further looking out of the dark upon the light than a man does in the light and looking out upon the light.

William Faulkner

Chinua Achebe and his peers posed a reverberant question at the 1962 writers’ conference at Makerere University in Uganda: What is African literature? “Was it literature produced in Africa or about Africa?” (Achebe, “The African Writer” 427). The thinkers and writers at the Makerere conference contemplated, though fleetingly and rhetorically, the eligibility of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson as works of African fiction under the category of writing about Africa. Both do posit a discursive and symbolic field that has Africa as their signified, and both have generated a wave of political and creative African writing in response. But these two novels are, to be trite, unflattering to Africa, and when it comes to race and racial consciousness, they are custodians of the prevailing ideas of their age. On the other hand there are literary voices from across the Atlantic, also writings about Africa, which are strongly conversant with the African novelistic tradition. These novels exhibit some of the same cultural imperatives and formal and rhetorical strategies found in the foundational novels of African fiction—Achebe’s own Things Fall Apart atop that list. Among those imperatives are unpacking the rationales of colonialism, re-tasking the English language, and probing the conflicted place of the Western-educated African intellectual, among others. In this essay I examine Rudolph Fisher’s Conjure-Man Dies, A Tale of Dark Harlem (1932), as one of those novels. Conjure Man Dies is a novel that wears the vestments of detective fiction to accomplish a range of cultural work that is significant on both sides of the Atlantic. And so it is one of the lost highways that connect African fiction with the black American aestheto-political imagination.

In his cornerstone essay “Typology of Detective Fiction,” Tzvetan Todorov asserts that one of the formative characteristics of detective fiction is the relative unimportance of the second story, the story of the investigation that happens after the principle action of the murder, which is to say the framing story. Of this enclosing narrative Todorov states, “It . . . has no importance in itself [but only] serves as a mediator between the reader and the story of the crime.” Todorov then claims that this outside narrative needs to be “perfectly transparent, imperceptible; the only requirement it obeys is to be simple, clear, direct” (46). Fisher’s Conjure-Man Dies, the first unserialized black detective fiction, foregrounds the investigation. In fact, in Fisher’s novel it is the investigation itself that is under investigation, [End Page 268] and detectives, like historians, become implicated in the past that they reconstruct.1 The murder of the novel’s eponymous character, West African conjure man N’gana Frimbo, is the central mystery of the plot. But the unraveling of this mystery is a discursive strategy by which the novel explores two related historical and epistemological questions. First, Fisher’s novel challenges detective methods—facts, deductive and inductive reasoning—to arrive at a broader interrogation of the axioms of Western science. This means that Fisher’s novel critiques the way the West “scientifically” studied and produced the African. Second, the investigation into Frimbo’s death doubles as an investigation into the relationship between black Americans and Africans. At the time Conjure Man Dies was published, all things African were vanguard and politically laden in the imagination of Harlem Renaissance writers and thinkers, as well as in the Back to Africa movement, spearheaded by the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey. Back to Africa differed from the mainstream of the Harlem Renaissance, however, in its politics. David Levering Lewis argues that Garvey and his movement promoted “African Zionism, anti-integrationism, [and a] working-class assertiveness [that] threatened the hegemony of the Talented Tenth and its major organizations” (Lewis xxiii). But whatever else their differences, Back to Africa and the mainstream of the Harlem Renaissance were united by their common evocations of Africa. Fisher’s novel, however, ultimately shows that...