Friday, February 26, 2021

The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, by Rudolph Fisher


Harper Collins, 2017
originally published 1932
293 pp


It is really sad that the author of this book, Rudolph Fisher,  died at such a young age, because after reading The Conjure-Man Dies, my thinking is that had he gone on to write more, I would have probably enjoyed reading everything this man would have produced.   An African-American writer of the Harlem Renaissance,  Fisher died at the young age of 37;  according to Sean Carlson in his recent article about the author for Motifon his death Zora Neale Hurston sent a telegram to Fisher's wife saying that "The world has lost a genius." Langston Hughes would later write that "... Fisher was too brilliant and too talented to stay long on this earth."  Written in 1932 and set completely in Harlem,  the book is the first crime novel to feature an all-Black cast of characters.  

The "conjure-man" is one N'Gana Frimbo, "A native African, a Harvard graduate, a student of philosophy -- and a sorcerer."   He works as a fortune teller/psychic out of an apartment in a house owned by the local undertaker in a room, "almost entirely in darkness," except for the illumination from  "an odd spotlight."  One night Jinx Jenkins and his friend Bubber Brown had gone to visit Frimbo, to get some advice about a business venture -- Jinx went in while Brown waited outside in the waiting room.  It wasn't long until Jinx came running out, grabbed Bubber and took him back to Frimbo's  consulting  room, where they found Frimbo dead. According to Jinx, he'd just   "stopped talkin', " after which Jinx turned the spotlight on the foturne teller and "there he was." It was "an hour before midnight" when the two ran across the street to Doctor John Archer for help, and on returning with them to Frimbo's apartment, Archer pronounces the conjure-man dead.  It is a true mystery; the wound on his head wouldn't have killed him, but on further examination, it turns out that the handkerchief stuffed down Frimbo's throat was more likely the cause of death.   The police are notified, and  Detective Perry Dart grabs the case.  

Dart is one of ten African-American Harlem cops who had been promoted from patrolmen to detective, and "knew Harlem from lowest dive to loftiest temple." The case should have been simple, since there  were only a limited number of suspects, all of whom had been who had either been to see Frimbo or were waiting to see him that night, yet it was anything but.  In the long run it will be four detectives who contribute to its solution, as  Dart and Archer enlist the help of Bubber and Jinx,  who had been  hoping to start a private detective business of their own, to help round up the people who had dealings with Frimbo that night.  All I will say is that all of them are in for a number of surprises before the case of the dead conjure-man is solved. 

from Black Past

I've read a lot of reader reviews in which most people figured out  the "who" pretty quickly, but I did not and it was a case of constant guessing right up until the end.  While that made me rather happy, what I found much more interesting was roaming the Harlem streets as Bubber and Jinx go out to round up the suspects.  When these people are interviewed,  their stories work outside of the mystery to provide a look at Harlem of the time, which is actually the reason I wanted to read this book.   As Scott Adlerburg from the LA Review of Books says in his revealing, in-depth article about The Conjure-Man Dies, Fisher adapts the mystery story "to his own concerns as a Harlem Renaissance novelist." 

In his 1971 introduction to this edition, Stanley Ellin states that in writing The Conjure-Man Dies, Rudolph Fisher "invests" his story with the "qualities of a social document recording a time and place without seeming to,"  and that's precisely what he's done.  Adlerburg notes that Fisher  "paved the way for the Harlem novels of Chester Himes," and that he "wrote something that has lasted" by offering the people of Harlem "as he actually saw them." 

It is a bit strange in the telling; on the other hand it is great fun and I laughed out loud more than once,  thoroughly enjoying every bit of this book for the crime and much, much more.   It won't be for everyone, but for readers who want a bit more in their mysteries or for readers who (like me) are more than interested in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, it's a great match. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The German Client, by Bruno Morchio


Kazabo Publishing, 2020
originally published 2008 as Rossoamaro

kindle edition

A few days ago I received an email from Kazabo reminding me that in March of 2020 I had said that I would be very interested in reading and posting about this novel.  I was actually horrified that I had completely spaced on doing that, so I bought a kindle copy right away (even though the lovely people at Kazabo had sent me an ecopy -- the least I could do, really), and then  yesterday I dropped everything to spend the day reading.   All I can say is that in March of 2020, on top of everything else going on, coronavirus became a new and intense stressor in our home;  quite honestly, I'm not surprised that I dropped the ball.  So to Chiara, my humble and sincere apologies.  

Bruno Morchio (short bio here)  is the author of a number of books featuring private detective Bacci Pagano; while his work is well known in Italy, The German Client is the first of his novels to be translated into English.  The story begins in Genoa's Sestri Ponente  in January of 1944,  as a young girl makes her way to her boyfriend and "his comrades" who are waiting for her on Mount Gazzo, all partisans in a patriotic action group (PAG).   The Sestri Ponente had been the "center of industry" with "more workers than anywhere else," making it "the heart of Genoese Resistance."    Unfortunately for Tilde, she is out after curfew and is arrested.  She is suspected of being part of a "partisan relay" and spends the night in jail before she is released the next day. Fast forward to the present day.  Bacci Pagano waits outside of a guarded hospital room where a woman, Jasmine,  is fighting for her life. As the book blurb states, if she survives,"her testimony will shatter a notorious human trafficking ring."   As he sits outside of her door, he is approached by a certain Kurt Hessen from Köln who has a job for him.  It seems that he would like help in finding his brother, about whom he knows virtually  nothing except that "he is the son of an an Italian woman named Nicla" who may have been active in the Resistance and that he might live in Sestri Ponente. He knows no first name, no last name, and he has never seen a photo of the guy; what he does know is that he too is Nicla's son, and that his father had been stationed in Genoa as an officer of the Wehrmacht before being killed by a bomb at a local movie theater in May of 1944.  Hessen is dying, and he would like to find his brother to leave him a substantial inheritance.    At first Bacci is reluctant to take on the case but changes his mind.   He knows that he will have to start with former members of the Resistance, which he does, but when he begins asking questions, he soon realizes that even though World War II has been over a very long time, there are some things that these old Resistance partisans would rather not discuss.   Bacci also discovers that by talking about the past,  he "seems to have uncovered a world that had been safely buried." The story moves back and forth between present and past until these buried secrets are eventually revealed. 

The German Client is a fine historical crime drama as well as a reminder that while history is never forgotten, for those who were actually a part of it there are perhaps some things just too painful to speak of.  It's a fascinating book, especially when we're in the Sestri Ponente during 1944 along with the Resistance fighters.  The author sets up an ongoing tension there that highlights not only the dangers of being involved in these PAGs, but also the necessary secrecy and the questions of whom one can actually trust.  These pages were flipped like crazy because I was so involved; the present narrative is also done very well, always linked to the past, with one exception:  the story of how Jasmine came to be in the hospital, staged in the manner of a more contemporary-style thriller.  While I'm not a huge fan of that sort of thing, the mysteries of the past that connected to the mysteries of the present were more than enough to satisfy. 

One more thing: at the end of the kindle edition of this book is a link to Kazabo's website, so of course, I went there.  I was happily surprised looking at their "Criminal Destinations" series, all of which will be coming to my home at some point over the next couple months.  It's high time more of these books are translated and made available to an English-speaking mystery-reading public, so good on you, Kazabo! 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes

ipso books, 2017
originally published 1938
275 pp


"Sen for the deth remeid is non,
Best that we for deth dispone
Eftir our deth that lif may we;
Timor Mortis conturbat me." 

Right at about page 165 of this book I stopped and made a comment on my goodreads group's "currently reading?" thread in which I said that it seems that everything has been laid out by now, and I'm stumped.  Looking back on it now,  it turns out that I may have jumped the gun a bit there thinking I had all pertinent information, but I still had no clue, and continued to remain in the dark until the very end.   This book is hands down one of the twistiest and strangest crime novels I've ever read, which is a good thing; at the same time, I had to really work at this one which raised my level of frustration more than once.  

The main action takes place, as the blurb for this book states, "in the depths of a howling winter night"  in a "remote castle isolated in the Scottish Highlands."  Down below Glen Echany is the village of Kinkeig where, when news came of the suicide of Randalf Guthrie, current laird of Echany,  "there was little grieving."  In fact, as we learn right away, "folk hated his very name."   This information comes from Ewan Bell, the shoemaker of Kinkeig, who lays the groundwork for this story and introduces us to the somewhat strange Guthrie and the castle's inhabitants (niece Christine, Hardcastle the sinister-seeming factor and his wife) before turning over the narration to others who will "tell of their own part in it."  Someone somewhere (maybe on goodreads? I don't remember now) mentioned "Rashomon-style," but for me the telling was much more in the vein of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.  By the end of the story, four other people will offer their voices to the furthering of the tale:  Noel Gylby, a young man on his way home to London and ends up "benighted" at the castle with the young woman whose car he crashed into during a blinding snowstorm;  Aljo Wedderburn, attorney; John Appleby, detective-inspector from Scotland Yard and finally the "testament" from "the doctor"  before the narrative is handed off once more to two people already heard from.  Here's the thing:  piecing together their individual accounts, it seems that perhaps there is much more going on here than Ranald Guthrie simply taking "his own ungodly life" -- and yet, if it wasn't suicide, then what exactly happened that night? 

The title of this book derives from a poem written by William Dunbar (as this brief article notes, one of  "a group of medieval Scots poets known as the makars" -- or "makers" ), and according to Christine, it is  often chanted by her uncle as he roamed about his castle.   The haunting last line of each stanza "Timor mortis conturbat me" (fear of death disturbs me") adds to the already Gothic-ish atmosphere provided by the setting, the overall strangeness that pervades this novel, and even the sighting of ghosts by various people.  While it was written during the Golden Age, it comes across as an example of an atypical story of this time, which I actually prefer. For me it's a case of the stranger the better.

 I quite enjoyed Lament for A Maker, which aside from its bizarre story appealed to my puzzle-solver self who loves a challenge, and I definitely got that here.  I will also admit that the joke was on me more than once, when I thought I had figured it out and really hadn't,  but I'd much rather things go that way than actually solving a mystery early on.    Aside from Innes' The Mysterious Commission which wasn't a John Appleby novel, I haven't read any of his other books, so I'm pretty stoked to read more right now.   Yet, as noted earlier, I did have to put a lot of effort into this one. My main issue with this book is that  it's not often that I sit with my iPad at the ready while reading a mystery novel -- that's usually what I do while reading nonfiction or more esoteric, out-there kind of books --  but here it was almost a necessity, at least at first,  since the entire first chapter was offered in a Scots dialect causing much frustration and necessitating multiple google visits.  It took me a while to warm up to this story, but in the long run, it was well worth it. 

Readers who make it through that first chapter will find a fine puzzler here, so don't give up.