“Death and the Conjuror” by Tom Mead

A modern mystery truthfully promoted as a locked-room… you love to see it!

Whenever a new mystery book or author is flaunted about as “the next Agatha Christie” or a “locked-room mystery”, there are sirens in my brain which go off. Will this really be a cleverly-clued puzzle like the Golden Age authors we all venerate? There are modern authors who write bona fide impossible crimes, and modern authors who write more modern-styled mysteries that are still really good, but it’s no secret that some of us have been hankering for a return to the literary style of Carr and Friends. Over the past few years, however, things have looked on the bright side: independently published authors like James Scott Byrnside and Jim Noy have wowed us with their impossible-crime skills. At the same time, Tom Mead has published several short stories with his magician-detective Joseph Spector in the most popular mystery magazines, especially EQMM. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when I read that the Mysterious Press would publish his first novel-length mystery with Spector. For months I awaited the release of Death and the Conjuror, with the hope that maybe this would be the book that could really get impossible crimes back into the popular eye, after the successes of the previously mentioned independent authors. And it’s such a good book that I think it just might.

Death and the Conjuror features a plot that really feels like it came straight out of 1936, when it takes place. Dr. Anselm Rees, a famous Austrian psychologist, has recently moved to London with his daughter, Lidia. Despite his public assertion that he is retired, he secretly takes on three clients: Floyd Stenhouse, a gifted violinist who suffers from nightmares about his father; Della Cookson, a stage actress prone to kleptomania; and Claude Weaver, a Detection Club member who has recently begun to have fugue states. One evening, Dr. Rees has a mysterious visitor who hides his face from the housekeeper, whereupon they talk for a half an hour before the visitor’s departure. Olive Turner, the housekeeper, hears Dr. Rees take a phone call right after this. A few minutes later, Della Cookson shows up, desperate to talk to Dr. Rees. The two women go to Rees’ study, only to find the door locked on the inside. When they get it open (by forcing the key out onto a sheet of paper inside the room) they find Dr. Rees with his throat violently slashed; the french windows, too, are locked from the inside and the only possible hiding place, a large trunk, is empty. It seems that a killer has materialized into the room to kill Dr. Rees, and then vanished! Inspector Flint of Scotland Yard, who has a distaste for these pesky impossible crimes, calls in Joseph Spector, a retired magician who has helped in these kinds of cases before. It turns out that Spector is working on an impossible theft that Cookson is suspected of. Do these two crimes have a connection? What about the shadow of Dr. Rees’ only failure, that of his patient “The Snakeman”? It will take detection, a second impossible murder, and a lot of magic tricks to find out.

In many regards Mead creates a plot and atmosphere that feels like it could be a lost novel from John Dickson Carr or Clayton Rawson. The crime itself is a perplexing locked room, with its inspiration in The Hollow Man – both of them include a no-footprints element to make things even more mysterious, alongside the mysterious visitor who enters the room. By the time that the crime rolls around, we’ve already gotten to know enough about the main suspects that we can immediately begin our own detection. The first chapter contains hints of Della Cookson’s kleptomania, the second shows Stenhouse at an appointment, and an interlude gives us a view into Weaver’s paranoia. At the same time we get to know Lidia Rees and her fiance, the not-so-bright Bright Young Thing, Marcus Bowman. Once Flint and Spector enter the scene, the motivations and actions of the suspects are considered and turned around on their head – like in any good detective story, just about everybody is hiding something. The other, smaller characters fill themselves in nicely, too – the unlikable publisher Ralph Tweedy, and Rosemary Weaver, Claude’s affable yet somewhat mysterious wife, were two of my favorites. We get nice details about some of the characters which make them a bit more realistic than they can be in most GAD – for instance, the passage on Sgt. Hook’s family lineage of police service made him a much more empathetic character than he would have been if he were just Flint’s helper.

Joseph Spector himself is a really great detective. The “magician-as-detective” trope is not a new one, and Clayton Rawson has probably had the most success so far with The Great Merlini, but Spector has some improvements on Merlini. Both are shadowy figures, but their mysteriousness doesn’t get in the way of realism. The main difference lies in their habits. I find Spector to be a much less annoying sleuth than Merlini. I mentioned in my review of Death from a Top Hat that Inspector Gavigan declared Merlini to be “worse than Philo Vance”, and I shared his sentiment. But Spector knows when to keep in line. Both magician detectives are fond of performing tricks and illusions at random moments – but whereas Merlini just kind of goes trigger-happy with his magic skills (I swear, he materializes a coin every other page,) Spector always has a reason for his conjuring. Specifically, the moment where he performs an magic trick on Royce, the clerk at Dufresne Court, is more than just a moment for Spector to show off – by catching Royce off guard he builds a connection that allows him to keep in the loop of any happenings there, which turns out to be very helpful later on. This is what I like about Spector – his mysteriousness and magic skills are built to help him in detection, not detract.

The mystery itself is deftly constructed. We get two impossible crimes simultaneously early on – the murder of Dr. Rees and the impossible theft of a priceless painting from Teasel’s house during a party. Obviously the focus is put on the locked-room murder, but the theft is given ample consideration as well. It doesn’t help Spector that, not unlike in Top Hat, just about every character seems to have a cast-iron alibi, or, if they don’t, their lack of an alibi somehow manages to help their case. About 2/3 of the way through we get another impenetrable crime scene, but this time it’s an elevator. This problem has a dual befuddlement – because it seems that neither the murderer nor their victim could have entered or exited the elevator since it was last used, by Flint himself! I must say that I’m glad that Mead included a locked-elevator murder, because it seems to me to be an underrated impossible crime. There are a few examples from the good old days – The Death of Laurence Vining, Murder Among the Angells, and Fatal Descent to name the three that are probably the best known – but it was never given as much consideration by impossible crime authors as other kinds of rooms to seal. Mead gives really great answers to all three impossibilities. The theft is solved a couple chapters before everything else, and while it reuses the solution of a much older and famous impossible crime story (which is name-dropped by Spector himself), it contains a nice extra reversal which caught me off guard (ROT-13: fcrpvsvpnyyl, gur eriryngvba gung Yvqvn jnf gur guvrs, fvapr gur gursg unq orra cerfragrq nf zber bs na vairegrq zlfgrel jvgu Qryyn nf gur phycevg.) The two locked rooms, though, are really something special. Dr. Rees’ murder has a complex scheme behind it, but the solution here was easy to follow and was fairly clued. It’s definitely one of those locked-room solutions which made me look at things completely differently. The elevator solution is not as grandiose as the first one, but I still really liked it, and I kicked myself for latching onto one of the clues for it but not figuring out where it fit in. Of course, there is a very cunning murderer to go with the solution, whose identity caught me off guard even among a not very large cast. And I’m glad that Mead showed how the murderer’s apparently foolproof plan was thrown off the rails (in the most GAD way possible) but still worked had it not been for Spector’s genius.

The last thing I want to praise this book for is the way it features several tropes from the era of GAD. I was delighted in the first pages by the inclusion of a dramatis personae. It’s always nice to have a character list actually made by the author (as compared to the character lists in Dell Mapbacks, which always seem to spoil something and/or make the culprit blindingly obvious,) which serves the dual purpose of keeping the names in check and bragging that while one of these names is the murderer’s, darned if you figure it out. Mead includes a Challenge to the Reader as well, before the penultimate chapter. The Challenge to the Reader is another trope which was not as heavily used as I would have thought it to have been during the Golden Age – of course Ellery Queen revolutionized it, during his Nationality period, but besides him it didn’t really catch on – I know Rupert Penny used it, but I can’t really think of many examples. It caught on again during the rise of shin honkaku, especially with Soji Shimada, and the EQ TV show featured, um, Challenges to the Viewer?, but it’s seen an uptick in the past few years. The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire and The Red Death Murders both have multi-faceted challenges which make you realize just how much has been packed into them. While Death and the Conjuror‘s Challenge does not have as much as those, it is still a signal of fairness and of love for the genre and its tropes. Finally, Mead includes a “clue-finder” in the explanatory penultimate chapter. This is a trope which seems to get mixed reviews, either praised as a sign of true fairness or a way to show the reader that some inane detail on page 47 was actually really clever! I can think of some good examples – Carter Dickson’s The Ten Teacups and The Judas Window both have clue-finding footnotes (although my Pocket Book copy of the former just copied and pasted it from the first edition so the pages don’t match up,) and I know that The Hog’s Back Mystery and Holy Disorders both contain clue-finders. Mead goes with the footnote method. There are a few included, and each one goes to show how he was able to include said clues so obviously and yet right under my nose. Like I said, one of the clues caught my attention when I read it (ROT-13 gur vaqvn ehoore) but I had no idea what it meant. So all in all I commend Mead on his inclusion of these tropes.

Death and the Conjuror is a special book. Not only is it a rare contemporary fair-play impossible crime mystery, but it really feels like it was written during the Golden Age. I definitely felt the same way reading this book as I did reading some of my absolute favorite locked-room mysteries, like The Hollow Man and Death of Jezebel. It’s a sense of bewilderment at the impossibility, along with awe at the author’s skill and ability in plotting. I’m very much looking forward to the return of Joseph Spector, and I do hope that this is a sign that impossible crime fiction gets the kind of large-scale release that this did more often.

Other Reviews:

Ah Sweet Mystery!

Crime Fiction Lover

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

James Scott Byrnside

Solving the Mystery of Murder

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