The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem

Fisher, Rudolph

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Sep-27-2021
  • Last revised: Oct-01-2021


A murder mystery set in Harlem of the 1930s. The Conjure-Man, Frimbo, is a reclusive, highly educated soothsayer and fortune teller born in Africa. His Harlem dwelling is a popular destination for local people seeking direction for the decisions that they confront. He takes pains to conceal much about his identity.

One evening, Frimbo is found dead by a client, while a handful of people occupy his waiting room. Doctor Archer, who lives across the street, is summoned to pronounce the death, and the police come soon, led by detective Dart. Then the corpse disappears, and the Conjure-Man reappears alive to the amazement of all.

The investigators use recent technology, including blood typing, to establish that the corpse was not that of the Conjure-Man. Over just a few days, the doctor and the detective work their way through all the possible scenarios to establish the identity and motive of the killer. The ending is surprising.


Frimbo is an admirable erudite, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, while the “closed room” scenario with a handful of characters evokes Agatha Christie. The writing is accessible, the rendering of Harlem accents remarkable, and the accurate references to state-of-the art forensic medicine, using anatomy and chemistry, are engaging. The conversations between Archer and Frimbo explore the nature of science, faith, and psychology.

Some passages contain philosophical observations:‘Pure faith in anything is mysticism. Our very faith in reason is a kind of mysticism’ (p. 214). 

Fisher was an African-American physician-author whose clever novel contains only African-American characters, including the physician and the detective. Specialized in radiology, he lived most of his life in Harlem, but he had studied medicine at Howard University. The author of many short stories and plays, he was also a gifted musician and composer. He at died at the age of 37 from an abdominal cancer attributed to his work with X-Rays. 


Original edition 1932


University of Michigan Press

Place Published

Ann Arbor MI



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