Chroniclers and critics of detective fiction have been strangely neglectful of this landmark novel by a principal figure of the Harlem Renaissance. The tale—a tour-de-force that richly combines a classic mystery puzzle with a sympathetic and subtle evocation of black New York at the start of the 1930s—concerns the murder, or rather the apparent murder, of N’Gana Frimbo, a self-exiled African king who had remade himself as a seer and caster of spells for clients who came to his office on West 130th Street, near Lenox Avenue. That intersection lies geographically near the center of Harlem, and similarly the investigation into the mysterious assault upon Frimbo serves as a narrative crossroads through which a full array of Harlem types manage to pass.
Police detective Perry Dart and Dr. John Archer share sleuthing chores here, and each man brings his own variety of intelligence to the ever-changing problem at hand. Archer, in particular, handles forensic data (bone and teeth fragments, blood tests, fingerprints) with a sophistication that comes across as surprising in a book written three-quarters of a century ago. It’s not too surprising, however: Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Fisher was a physican first and a fiction writer second, and a clinical interest in the scientific method plainly informs his approach to crafting a detective novel. All the same, it’s as a storyteller that Fisher truly excels. Marred only by a huddled and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, this “Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem” offers a wide range of literary pleasures, including fine prose, comic relief presented in the high-low style of Shakespeare, and—cleverly wedged into its crime-story plot—a suggestive fable about the meaning of blackness.