Tom Mead is a British writer, playwright and a self-described student of the impossible crime story, "there is something about a locked room mystery that speaks to me in a way that no other genre does," but "student" is a euphemism here for fanboy – a massive one at that. Mead has been championing the locked room mystery and cutting his teeth on short stories, before finally publishing his first novel-length (historical) locked room mystery in 2022.
I thought Death and the Conjuror (2022) worked better as a retro whodunit than a classically-styled locked room mystery with its two overlapping casts of characters each nestled deeply within a tightly-woven, entangled web of plot-threads. The trio of impossibilities were, regrettably, not quite as good and particular the solutions to the disappearance of a painting and a body materialization inside a sealed elevator left me underwhelmed. Not everyone appreciated my tepid review, but miracle crimes is the hook of the "Joseph Spector Locked Room Mystery" series and it would be unfair to claim the three impossibilities can vie with the best from John Dickson Carr. Not yet, anyway.
If you have read my reviews of writers like James Scott Byrnside and P. Dieudonné, you know I'm a big fan of affording this new crop of neo-GAD authors the same room as their illustrious predecessors to hone their skills, building a series and finding their own voice – an essential to today's neo-GAD writers. Byrnside started out with a two novel-length fan letters to Christianna Brand and Dieudonné's debut is a better than average imitation of A.C. Baantjer, but both became less derivative with each novel to make room for their own skills and ideas to shine. For example, Baantjer could never have written Dieudonné's third novel, Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020). So never expected Death and the Conjuror to be the modern-day counterpart to The Three Coffins (1935), Rim of the Pit (1944) or Black Aura (1974). Just the first step in the creation of one.
Despite my reservations about the locked room merits of Death and the Conjuror, I looked forward to the see how this series would develop further in the second novel. And, to cut straight to the chase, The Murder Wheel (2023) improved tremendously on its predecessor. Well, with a few caveats. More on that in a moment.
First of all, the first improvement is the introduction of a young, up-and-coming solicitor, Edmund Ibbs, who hopefully becomes a recurring character in the series. Ibbs is a character cut from the same cloth as the young heroes with a penchant for getting into trouble you'll find all over Carr's work. The Murder Wheel has Ibbs acting as an assistant to Sir Cecil Bullivant, QC, acting for the defense in "the matter of the Crown versus Carla Dean." Mrs. Carla Dean is not only the primary suspect in the so-called "Ferris Wheel Murder Case," but the only possible suspect. On the night of August 19th, Dominic Dean took his wife to the Golders Green fairground as a treat, but Dean kept looking over his shoulder "as though someone were following him." Carla even became convinced they were being followed by a suspicious-looking character with a limp as they made their way round the fair. So, of course, Dominic and Carla decided to take a spin on the Ferris Wheel, but, when their carriage reached the top, people below heard a gunshot. The next thing that happened is a screaming Carla, "help, help," sticking her head over the side of the car that her husband has been hurt. When the carriage came back down, Dominic was found to have been shot in the stomach at close range, and dying, while Carla held the smoking gun in her hand. Nobody except Carla could have fired the fatal shot. The defense has their work cut out as their only hope is to convince a jury that "somebody other than Mrs. Carla Dean could have killed her husband on top of that Ferris wheel," which is not as easy as it sounds when the sealed crime scene is basically "a ready-made collar."
However, the "Ferris Wheel Murder Case" merely furnishes a backdrop to, what can be called, the "Pomegranate Theatre Murder Case." The case against Carla Dean occupies Ibbs professionally, but what drew him to the Pomegranate Theatre is a personal pastime.
Edmund Ibbs is a passionate amateur magician and recently got his hands on a newly released copy of a tell-all book, The Master of Manipulation, written by the pseudonymous "Dr. Anne L. Surazal" who evidently knew the tricks of the trade – "all the mysteries and wonders of the stage dispelled at a stroke." Particularly the book of tricks a magician who recently returned to the London stage. Professor Paolini had been away on a five-year world tour, "playing stages from Australia to Utrecht," whose return lured a who's who of magicians, like Joseph Spector, to the Pomegranate Theatre ("Ibbs was agog"). The show gets off to a great start with Ibbs getting to participate in a notorious trick and gets to watch Paolini's variation on the Assistant's Revenge, but the death defying bullet catch trick proves to be the least dangerous and baffling trick of the evening. Paolini last trick is to bring a disassembled suit of armor by placing the pieces on a mannequin and placing it inside a locked trunk. When the trunk is opened, the lifeless mannequin falls out together with a dead body that appears to have materialized out of thin air! A body belonging to someone peripherally involved in the shooting of Dominic Dean.
The inexplicable appearance of the body in the trunk is not the last impossibility the Pomegranate baffling Inspector George Flint, Joseph Spector and especially Edmund Ibbs. That third impossibility concerns a shooting in a locked dressing room leaving behind a dead body and an obvious, living and breathing, suspect clutching the murder weapon, but swears he didn't do it and had been knocked unconscious. However, nobody besides the victim and suspect could have gotten in, or out, the dressing room after it had been locked. But why commit an apparently motiveless murder under such incriminating circumstances ("this is starting to sound like the Dean case all over again")?
So how well did The Murder Wheel perform, as a locked room mystery, compared to Death and the Conjuror? A huge improvement, overall, but have something to nitpick about the first and last locked room. I appreciated what Mead tried to do with the Ferris Wheel murder, whodunit-wise, which is not unheard of (ROT13: ntngun puevfgvr'f ybeq rqtjner qvrf), but staging a murder like that in such a sealed, high-up location makes the solution utterly unconvincing. A better fairground attraction for the murder would have been a haunted house ride, (ROT13) fb rira n qlvat Qbzvavp Qrna pbhyqa'g gryy gur crbcyr jub ehfurq gb uvf nvq jura gurl pnzr bhg. Gurer jbhyq or nf zhpu vapevzvangvat rivqrapr ntnvafg Pynen (natyr bs gur fubg naq svatrecevagf ba gur tha) nf fbzr fbyvq pbhagre nethzragf (ynpx bs zbgvir naq jul pbzzvg zheqre haqre fhpu evqvphybhf pvephzfgnaprf), which I think would have made for a more dynamic puzzle minus the burden of expecting a locked room-trick worthy of its premise. I mean, The Murder Wheel gives an explanation to one of Paolini's illusions and how the trick works would be considered cheating in a detective story (vg'f n qbhoyr), but Paolini is a stage magician – not a mystery writer. A magician has no obligation to explain the audience how they were fooled, but the story is different for mystery writers. Even more so, if you evoke the locked room mystery and toss out false-solutions. It sets expectations for the locked room-angle that were not met by the titular murder.
Fortunately, the third locked room mystery pulled itself together in the longer than expected epilogue and turned out to be something of a nail biter, because dreaded the direction in which the solution appeared to be heading. And when Spector proposed his solution, I feared I had to churn out another lukewarm "hot take" to be disapproved and frowned upon. Mead went all out in the epilogue and fanboyed all over the locked room genre. I can sympathize. Mead's enthusiasm here was infectious enough to go along and forgive the patchwork nature of the locked room-trick, but what the modern-day, neo-GAD locked room mystery needs more of today is the kind of ingenuity and plotting that created the illusion of the materializing body inside the sealed trunk on stage. A superb example of what can be done by intertwining the art of conjuring with the craftiness of the detective story and loved the diagram of the trunk to explain the intended illusion. Hopefully, the quality of the trick with the trunk will become the standard of the series.
The Murder Wheel is not only about a string of miraculous murders. Just as important and integral to the overall plot is the material, who and why, stringing those three impossible crimes together. Honestly, Mead so far appears to be better at the who-and why as once again dexterously dovetailed overlapping casts of characters, numerous plot-threads, clues, red herrings and hidden motives-and relationships – like cutting and manipulating a deck of cards. Toss in a good, old-fashioned "Challenge to the Reader" and a solution strewn with footnotes referring back to the pages containing all the clues, you have pleasingly captive, well crafted detective novel that succeeded in capturing and evoking the Golden Age of the Grandest Game in the World. So eagerly look forward to Mead's third Joseph Spector miracle extravaganza, Cabaret Macabre (2024). The locked room mystery novel is walking again! Now I only need to get my hands on some of those other short stories.
On a final, unrelated note: I know the non-English, post-GAD locked room mysteries have once again dominated this blog, but rest assured, I do plan to eventually return to Christopher Bush, Moray Dalton and Brian Flynn.