The mystery man of the Harlem Renaissance: novelist Rudolph Fisher was a forerunner of Walter Mosley.
The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem by Rudolph Fisher University of Michigan Press, March 1992 $16.95, ISBN 0-472-06492-4
The City of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher edited by John A. McCluskey University of Missouri Press, May 1987 $16.95, ASIN 0-826-20630-1
He left behind only two novels and 15 short stories when he died from a stomach ailment at age 37 in 1934. Every one of those sharply observant, often satirical, sometimes sad, works has the same setting--Harlem. Rudolph Fisher's Harlem was peopled by blacks representing occupations from street hustler to police sergeant to physician, and complexions ranged from black to light-enough-to-pass. Whether playing jazz or playing the numbers, cutting hair or cutting one another, Fisher's characters come to life through his unfailing ear for dialogue.
Fisher's sharp prose also adeptly describes the lay of Harlem itself: "It must be explained that of Manhattan's two most famous streets, neither Broadway nor Fifth Avenue reaches Harlem in proper guise. Fifth Avenue reverts to a jungle trail, trod almost exclusively by primitive man; while Broadway, seeing its fellow's fate, veers off to the west as it travels north, avoiding the dark kingdom from afar. A futile dodge, since the continued westward spread of the kingdom threatens to force the side-stepping Broadway any moment into the Hudson; but, for the present, a successful escape," Fisher writes in his first book, The Walls of Jericho (1928). In it, he comically but convincingly evokes the worlds of three Harlem strata: educated elite, small-business owners, and rank-and-file workers.
Two characters from The Walls of Jericho return in The Conjure-Man Dies (1932), reputedly the first mystery novel published by a black American. The investigation of the apparent murder and resurrection of a fortuneteller is undertaken by tough, urbane Detective Sergeant Perry Dart and an erudite physician, John Archer.
Born in 1897, in Providence, Rhode Island, Fisher was remarkable because he enjoyed success in both literature and medicine, but it is for his literary works that Fisher most deserves to be remembered. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University and completed medical school at Howard University. During the 1920s, he published in medical journals, performed research on the effects of ultraviolet rays on viruses, headed a department in Manhattan's International Hospital, and opened a private practice, while writing short stories that were published magazines like The Atlantic Monthly and befriending such prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance as Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson.
Fisher anticipated by nearly three decades the work of Chester Himes, author of the celebrated detective novels featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson (among them A Rage in Harlem and Cotton Comes to Harlem).
Fisher's short stories have been collected in various volumes, including The City of Refuge, which contains both the most light-hearted and the darkest of Fisher's writing. "The City of Refuge" and "The Promised Land," follow characters who have come from the South seeking fortune, escape, or both; and depict the cold reality beneath Harlem's surface charm. Published, for the most part, before Fisher's novels, the stories in this volume show the evolution of his style to the ironic detachment that informs The Walls of Jericho. That detachment is the source of Fisher's greatest strength as a satirist. Fisher is both an inheritor and an establisher of tradition.
Clifford Thompson ("The Mystery Man of the Harlem Renaissance" TRIBUTE, p. 63) is the editor of Current Biography. Thompson's nearly 50 published pieces include essays, book and film reviews, short stories, a novelization, and a young-adult biography of the writer Charles Chesnutt.