Rudolph Fisher, the first African-American mystery writer

March 12, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Poet Langston Hughes called Rudolph Fisher “the wittiest of these new Negroes of Harlem. He always frightened me a little, because he could think of the most incisively clever things to say, and I could never think of anything to answer.”

Being a sparkling conversationalist was one of the many traits exhibited by this remarkable man, Rudolph Fisher. He was a medical doctor who practiced in Harlem in the 1920s and early 1930s. He was also interested in theater and acting and playwriting, he was a pioneering researcher in the new field of radiology, and he wrote and published 15 short stories in the space of a decade.

Fisher was also a novelist, and that is the main reason why we remember him, if we remember him at all, today. He wrote two novels, one of which is considered to be the first detective novel in the mode of Dashiell Hammett written by an African-American. That novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, was published in 1932.

The novel is set in Harlem in the late 1920s. The police detective at the center of the novel is Black, one of the few Black men in the New York police force at that time, and he and his Black patrol officers can only practice their profession in Harlem. The other main character of the novel is a young doctor, probably patterned on Fisher himself.

The novel is a clever whodunnit that uses a cast of well-drawn Black characters and gives the reader a wide view of life in that section of New York City during those crazy times. It is delightful to read today, and it is a shame that Rudolph Fisher is not more well-known.

Fisher was born in 1897 in New York City and spent his early years there. His father, a Baptist minister, received a new assignment in Providence, Rhode Island, and he moved his family there. It was in that city where Fisher received the bulk of his formal education.

He attended Brown University and graduated from there in 1919. He was selected as one of the students to speak at commencement that year. After that, he went on to receive a master’s degree at Brown University.

He moved to Washington, D.C., where he entered Howard University medical school, and he eventually received his medical degree. He married his high school sweetheart, and they moved back to New York City in the mid-1920s.

Harlem was teeming with life, arts, music, and laughter at the time, and Fisher was a full participant and a keen observer. In addition to his medical practice and research, he achieved success writing short stories. His first story, “The City of Refuge,” was published in The Atlantic magazine in 1925. It was later included in an anthology of the best short stories of the year. (You can read “The City of Refuge” at this link.)

His first novel, The Walls of Jericho, a gentile and incisive satire on life in Harlem, was published in 1928.

The second novel, his mystery published four years later, established his place in American letters.

Because of his interest in radiology, it is likely that Fisher often practiced on himself without realizing fully the dangers that such practice involved. In the early 1930s, he began to have medical problems, and he underwent several operations in an attempt to correct these. Unfortunately, nothing worked.

Fisher died in 1934 at the age of 37. He left behind a wife and a son and a written legacy that has lasted for nearly a century. His novels are as current today as the time in which they were written, and they are still well worth reading.

The Harlem Renaissance is the name given to poets, writers, and artists who emerged in and around Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. Langston Hughes, the poet, is probably the most well-known of these, but Rudolph Fisher’s name should be prominent among them.

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