Earlier this month, I reviewed two of Tom Mead's short-form locked room mysteries, "Invisible Death" (2018) and "The Walnut Creek Vampire" (2020), while eagerly awaiting the delivery of my copy of his debut novel, Death and the Conjuror: A Joseph Spector Locked Room Mystery (2022) – which promised to be a magician's prop box of miraculous crimes. I thought the two short stories were ambitious in concept and a trifle weak in execution as the clueing left a lot to be desired. Clues and red herrings are vital ingredients of the traditional, fair play detective and indispensable to the plot-driven kind like the locked room mystery. However, I suspected Mead might be a mystery writer who needs a novel-length canvas to work his magic on to full effect. I was right.Tom Mead's Death and the Conjuror is set in 1936 and has two different, overlapping casts of characters whom together present a whole array of puzzling issues to the ageless magician, Joseph Spector.
Dr. Anselm Rees is a well-known psychologist who had lived and worked his entire life in Vienna, Austria, but he had reasons to emigrate and arrived in England with his personally trained daughter, Dr. Lidia Rees. Dr. Anselm Rees told upon his arrival in England to the assembled press "he had no intention of taking on any new patients," but, less than a month later, he has taken on three patients in secret. Their identities were kept in strict confidence and "in his notebooks he referred to them only as Patients A, B, and C." Patient A is a musician, Floyd Stenhouse, who's "one of the finest violinists the Philharmonic had ever known." Patient B is "one of the greatest actresses of the age," Della Cookson, who's also a kleptomaniac. Patient C is a typical, reclusive writer type, Claude Weaver, who writes mystery novels. The second cast of characters is flocked around an impresario, Benjamin Teasel, who's producing and directing a "little Grand Guignol" at the Pomegranate Theatre, Miss Death, in which Della Cookson and Lucy Levy respectively play first and second female lead. Joseph Spector is there as the stage-play is built on the back of his tricks and illusions.
One evening, Dr. Rees tells his housekeeper, Olive Turner, that he expects a visitor and instructs her to direct him to his study. A visitor announces himself without giving a name, a hat pulled over his forehead and a thick scarf obscuring his face. Ah, the seasoned locked room reader shouts out, but, half an hour later, the mysterious visitor leaves the house. Olive Turner goes to check on Dr. Anselm and talks to him through a locked door. She even hears him answering the telephone to talk to a patient and the scratching of his pen on a notepad. But when another visitor turns up unannounced, Dr. Anselm no longer responds to Olive's knocking. When they finally manage to get the door open, they discover the doctor's body with "his throat cleaved by a hideous crimson gash" that nearly decapitated him, but the door and french windows are locked from the inside – keys still in the keyholes. There's a stretch of flowerbed outside the french windows, which "an assailant would have to trample to get out that way," but "none of the footprints led anywhere near the house." So how did the murderer vanish from a locked room with a witness standing outside the door?
Inspector George Flint represents the official side of the investigation and he knows, like every experienced policeman, "most murders are sordid back-street affairs" with "no mystery or magic to them." But lately, Inspector Flint has become aware of "a burgeoning subgenre of crime" known as impossible crimes. There's been an alarming uptick of these impossible crimes as "men in locked rooms were killed under impractical circumstances" or bodies "found strangled in a snowy field with only a single set of footprints trailing backward from the corpse." I like it! This is Mead assuring the reader that his criminals and murderers have style, take pride in their handy work and put a little effort in their thefts and murders. Mead's murderers don't lower themselves to something as vulgar as revolver shots through an open car window or a blackjack in a pitch-black alleyway. Just full-blown locked room murders. And the question how "Anselm Rees had his throat slit in a perfectly sealed room" is not the only impossibility on Inspector Flint's plate.
During a party at Benjamin Teasel's home, a valuable painting goes missing without a trace. Teasel had locked the painting away in a large, wooden box underneath his bed and kept the keys on a cord around his neck, while every room in the house was locked up tight as he's not "very particular about people wandering around his upstairs." Only the front door was unlocked. There were two maids stationed there to welcome latecomers and they swear nobody walked out with a large canvas.
Inspector Flint admits he doesn't have the kind of brain to pick apart these murders staged as puzzles and turns to a specialist, Joseph Spector. A former music hall conjuror who looks like he belongs to a bygone era and could be aged "anywhere from fifty to eighty." Flint called it one of Spector's most fascinating tricks as he seen him grow older or younger depending on the situation, which is an illusion the magician carefully maintains. Jokingly referring to how the Spanish Armada ruined his tenth birthday and keeping his real name a secret. So you can't help but catch a glimpse of Edward D. Hoch's Simon Ark in Joseph Spector. Although with him it's unquestionable all smoke and mirrors ("we cheat"), but exactly the kind of mind the police needs with cases like these.
The historical, 1936 period setting is no obstacle to discuss the then recently published The Hollow Man (1935), also known as The Three Coffins, in which Joseph Spector's "mutual friend Mr. John Dickson Carr has written a fairly comprehensive study of the locked-room problem" providing several categories of solution – which they crosscheck against their own locked room murder. Not a bad way to go over and use the famous "Locked Room Lecture" as it eliminates variations on the most well-known solutions and drives home just how impossible the murder under investigation really appears to be. These are the kind of treats locked room fans love! But the impossible crimes are not the only plot-strands requiring the attention of Flint and Spector. There's basically a whole tangle of complicated, possibly interconnected relationships, closely-guarded secrets and potential motives that need to be picked apart. So basically who did what, why and how, which at times tried to mimic the psychological whodunits of Helen McCloy. One of the mystery writers Mead names in “Acknowledgments” as writers who "enthuse and inspire" him, which also include Carr, Hoch, Hake Talbot and Clayton Rawson. They all appear on his "Top 10 Impossible Crimes" and, yes, Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938) is on there. Just like Rawson in Death from a Top Hat, Mead fanboyed a little too hard and tried to cram too much into a single novel. That began to result in some diminishing returns. Regrettably, that's especially true of the three impossible crimes with the third one happening when a body miraculously materialized inside "an apparently hermetically sealed elevator" under observation.
The impossible murder of Dr. Anselm Rees has an acceptable enough explanation, but not one that will blow most readers away and the strength is not in the locked room-trick. But everything packed around that trick that makes Death and the Conjuror more successful as an old-fashioned, neo-Golden Age whodunit than a classic locked room mystery. For example, the way in which Mead builds up towards the murder recalls Carr's The Hollow Man and La maison interdite (The Forbidden House, 1932) by M. Herbert and E. Wyl, which likely was done on purpose to the misdirect the experiences, keen-eyed locked room fanboys. Going in a completely different direction once the bundled-up figure disappeared through the front door. Add the intricate, web-like circle of suspects and you have a modern rendition of the classic, 1930s mystery novel. Only weakness is that the motive linking the murderer and victim is rag-thin.
So the primary impossible situation is not perfect, but well-wrought as a pure, old-school detective story with the locked rooms as a little extra. And while the locked room-trick is not blistering original, it's actually a locked room mystery. Something that can't be said about the problem of the stolen painting. The only reason why it appeared to be an impossible theft is that the story conveniently ignored (ROT13) gung gur cnvagvat pbhyq unir orra gnxra bhg bs vgf senzr, gur senzr oebxra vagb cvrprf naq guebja bhg bs n jvaqbj until it was time to explain how it was done, but it was the first possibility that occurred to me. However, where the thief stowed away the painting was clever and very well done. The problem of the sealed elevator felt a little out of place here and the incredibly pulpy, somewhat hacky method would have been better served in a short homage to the pulp fiction of yesteryear like the Don Diavolo mysteries by one "Stuart Towne." That being said, the presentation of this problem was not without interest. Recently, I reviewed one of Hoch's short story collections, Funeral in the Fog (2020), which has a story, "The Way Up to Hades" (1988), about a rock star who vanishes from moving and watched elevator. Normally, a sealed elevator is the scene of a murder, but Hoch and Mead used it to make their victim disappears or appear out of thin air. I thought it was interesting to see how Hoch and Mead approaches the same problem from opposite directions and came away with completely different solutions.
You might assume from my review that the conclusion soured me on the whole story, but that's not the case. Yes, as a classically-styled locked room mystery, Death and the Conjuror leaves something to be desired. It's simply not in the same class as Carr, Hoch or Talbot. But as a detective story, Death and the Conjuror gives the reader a sound continuation of the 1930s mystery novel. I want to echo Isaac Stump, of Solving the Mystery of Murder, who summed up the book as follow, "a fantastic crime novel… which has a locked-room mystery, and not, unfortunately, a fantastic locked-room mystery." I agree. There's another, very good reason why I loved the book. For close to fifty years, people who enjoy Golden Age detective fiction didn't have to wait for the new Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen to be published with the only real hurdle posed by obscure, long out-of-print writers and novels that were hard to come by – which the internet has since smoothed out and lead to a Renaissance Era. Now we can see the first flickers of the sparks that will light the fires of the Second Golden Age with M.P.O. Books, James Scott Byrnside, P. Dieudonné, Robert Innes, D.L. Marshall and Tom Mead giving us the authentic Golden Age experience of getting to watch them building a series from the ground up as they hone their skills and improve as they go on. So as far as I'm concerned, Death and the Conjuror is Mead's It Walks by Night (1930) that will eventually lead to a modern-day The Hollow Man in 2027. No pressure, though. :)