A fragment of historical importance, serialized in 1907–09 and now published for the first time in book form, pits a gifted young African detective against a covey of veteran jewel thieves.
Before he can join the ranks of the International Detective Agency, Sadipe Okukenu, a highly educated Yoruban, must first leave Nigeria for America in the company of a kindly but condescending sea captain who places him at his sister’s school in Maine. Winning a scholarship to a one-horse southern college satirically modeled on the Tuskegee Institute, Sadipe swiftly finds, as his friend General R.M. De Mortie tells him, that “the South is a veritable hell for a man of your culture and taste.” So Sadipe withdraws from the college and the region one step ahead of a lynch mob after he’s integrated a public conveyance half a century ahead of Rosa Parks and challenged a white missionary’s benighted view of the Dark Continent. In the considerably less interesting sequel, Sadipe, observant, ingratiating, and formidably articulate, rises on the general’s recommendation to a trusted position in the agency, and it’s no surprise—though it’s quite a coincidence—when he instantly divines that Col. Ewart George Evelyn Bradshawe and his plausible accomplices have their eye on a fabulous diamond Captain George De Forrest bought several years ago from Sadipe’s own brother. Showing skills for inference, guesswork, and especially disguise, Sadipe is hot on the trail of the conspirators when the story breaks off with Captain De Forrest’s diamond still unstolen.
The crime story here, as Gruesser’s scholarly introduction acknowledges, is at once cluttered, transparent, and incomplete. In his forerunner to Chester Himes’s ribald comedy and Walter Mosley’s somber odysseys of oppression, though, ex-slave Bruce (1856–1924) shows that although subtlety in representing heroes of color would come later, racial pride and eloquence were ready and waiting long ago.