Let’s face it: life these days has not been just a bowl of cherries. You might wonder, then, why I seem to only read books about violent death. The answer, for any fan of classic crime stories at least, is obvious: we read mysteries for the same reason that millions of souls gobbled them up between 1920 and 1940: to escape. The Golden Age of Detection began on the heels of a world war during a depression and a plague, and it slooooowly wound down during yet another battle between nations.
But why did people seek comfort in stories of wealthy uncles found bashed over the head or a succession of blondes getting their throats slit in the murky alleys of the City? Tom Mead, in his first novel, Death and the Conjuror, lays it out pretty clearly for all of us when his inspecteur de l’histoire, George Flint, confronts the body of Dr. Anselm Rees, found with his throat slit behind the locked doors and windows of his private study:
“Most murders are sordid back-street affairs, no mystery or magic to them. Usually the culprit is whoever was closest to the victim. But increasingly over the last few years, (Flint) had been conscious of a burgeoning sub-genre of crime, which had rolled over the city like fog. These were the “impossible crimes” – typically high-society affairs, where men in locked rooms were killed under impractical circumstances, or where, for example, a body was found strangled in a snowy field, with only a single set of footprints trailing backward from the corpse.
“Murder as a puzzle. It’s hard to let oneself become emotionally involved in a case like that. You must retain a sense of intellectual distance.”
Indeed, you must! Modern critics have long railed against the supposed lack of connection in classic crime novels between the act of murder and the emotional chaos it inspires. This criticism isn’t always fair, even though I get what they’re saying. It’s the result of treating murder as a work of art. Classic mysteries offer us criminals bursting with panache and posh sleuths who remove all the plodding bits from their investigations (and most of the fear and sorrow that sudden death inspires) and deliver an intriguing yet oddly soothing puzzle for the brain.
Death and the Conjuror is brimming with puzzles, and it’s full of art. The detective is also an artist, rather posh, and often quite funny. Joseph Spector was, in his day, a great “music hall conjuror.” Nowadays, (that is, in September, 1936), he consults with those who require a public illusion. It is in his capacity as stage advisor to London producer Benjamin Teasel that Spector becomes involved with the murder of Dr. Rees, a renowned Viennese psychiatrist who has semi-retired to London with his daughter Lidia, an icy young lady who plans on following in her father’s footsteps.
Rees has taken on just three patients, all of them artists: one is a musician, one a writer of crime thrillers, and the third a famous actress – who happens to be starring in Teasel’s latest project, Miss Death. On a stormy night, when he is alone except for his loyal old housekeeper, Rees receives a mysterious visitor. By the end of the evening, the psychiatrist will be found dead in his locked study, and it appears that neither his visitor nor anyone else could have killed him.
Suspicion falls initially on the actress, but it seems that at the time of the murder, she was at a party at Teasel’s home, committing an impossible crime of her own – the theft of an extremely valuable painting. Or did she? And why was she also present a few days later in an apartment building when yet another impossible murder was committed, in circumstances that I will leave you to discover?
Mead sets a huge task for himself and his magician sleuth as he inserts multiple threads into his narrative: the psychological problems of each of his patients could inspire multiple mysteries, plus there are events in Dr. Rees’ own past that may or may not be relevant to his murder. Joseph Spector says to Inspector Flint near the very end:
“What we are faced with is a puzzle with too many pieces. Certain among our clues might connect with others. But take an altogether, as a whole, there are just too many inconsistencies. It’s all too ornate and diaphanous . . .”
I might have a slight tendency to agree with that assessment. But rest assured that Spector (and the author) manages to fit all the pieces together in a handsome and, believe it or not, basically simple way. I have never been and will never be a person who totally follows all the methods in impossible crimes, but I basically understood . . . well, a lot of it! And there are other elements of deception within the solution that surprised and pleased the inveterate Christie fan in me.
It may seem hackneyed nowadays to describe any mystery as a loving homage to the Golden Age of Detection, but Death and the Conjuror is the real deal. Mead partly dedicates the book to the memory of John Dickson Carr, and in an afterward, he expresses his appreciation to the classic authors who inspired him: Carr, Ellery Queen, Edward D. Hoch, Helen McCloy, Hake Talbot, Clayton Rawson, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand. THe influence of every member of this esteemed list on Mead’s own work is readily apparent, from the clever locked room puzzles to the emphasis on psychology that marked the work of Helen McCloy and the fine character work of Brand and Blake. We even get a Queenian “Challenge to the Reader.” (I would say that my own score on that account ranks at about 12% accuracy.)
Best of all for me is Joseph Spector himself, a detective I can easily see commanding a long series of written exploits. Mead smartly honed the character in a series of short stories, and Spector now carries off a full-length adventure with aplomb and wit. (The last moment of the novel had me grinning like a madman.) Tom Mead is a welcome addition to the ranks of modern authors embracing the classic style, folks like Paul Halter, Jim Noy, and James Scott Byrnside, and I look forward with anticipation to Spector’s next case.
10 thoughts on “ABRA-CADAVER: Death and the Conjuror”
Thank you so much for this wonderful review!
Brad – I ordered a copy of this on the strength of Steve’s posting over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel so I am pleased to see you enjoyed it as well. I look forward to reading it.
Earlier this week I saw the author, Tom Mead, post a (one-off?) blog, “10 Most Puzzling Impossible Crime Mysteries”, here: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/89878-10-most-puzzling-impossible-crime-mysteries.html . Of course I love these best of lists as I find new authors / books I otherwise might have missed. So off now to hunt the Lord Dulsany title as this is a new author for me.
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Interesting list, but I personally found “Through a Glass, Darkly” to be a disappointment.
My relationship to the impossible crime mystery is so different from most of my fellow readers here that it’s hard for me to comment on this list, let alone agree with most of the selections. For example, unlike Johan, I really love Through a Glass, Darkly – but not as an impossible crime mystery, for the final explanation is pretty disappointing. No, it’s all the human element: watching Gisela slowly go mad as she comes to a certainty that she has been split in two! That is handled beautifully.
Likewise, when it comes to Carr, I always point to He Who Whispers, The Punch and Judy Murders and She Died a Lady as favorites, but they do not contain his best locked rooms. No, I love the emotional devastation at the end of two of them and the hilarity of The Punch and Judy Murders (I don’t even remember an impossibility in that one!)
If we’re rating impossible crime novels on the basis of their impossibilities, I can totally see how The Hollow Man rates up there – even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. I would also put Rim of the Pit on that list, along with The Decagon House Murders and Death in the House of Rain. All three of these are crazy nuts, even if they lack other factors I look for in my mysteries. I’m also looking forward to re-reading Death of Jezebel next month to remember what that device was all about.
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Brad – I agree with you and yet I love Top 10 lists like this one from Tom Mead for several reasons.
For example, I use your blog past and present as well as that of Steve, Kate, Moira, JJ, John, Ben, Curtis, Martin, Nick, TomCat, Isaac, Neeru, Aidan, Sergio, Dan, Laura, etc. to curate the best of the best of GAD. I don’t have the time to be a completist of any author including Christie (not a fan of her alleged thrillers like Chimneys, Frankfurt, etc.); late Carr; prolific authors like Flynn, Rhode, Bush, Lorac, Gilbert, etc. who can be hit and miss. Having access to brilliant and prolific bloggers whose views I respect allows me to triangulate on the best of the best. Brand may be my only completist author as I really like her work and her output makes that an easier accomplishment.
I have learned not to trust a positive review from only one blogger and look for multiple opinions before finding and reading a rare book when I have finite time to read. All bloggers understandably want different things from their GAD including but not limited to some mix of locked rooms, impossible crimes, unbreakable alibis, character development / empathy / motivation, page turners, gasping reveals / reversals, no sagging in the middle, endings that sizzle and not fizzle, suspense, great literature / prose, etc. etc. So we have “marmite” lovers and haters of authors like Queen, Innes, Stagge, Marsh, Mitchell, Allingham, etc. Multiple blog views help me curate the best of these authors and leave the rest.
Even with this approach I have assembled a TBR that resembles a mountain on the verge of avalanche.
As such, these top GAD lists are never ones to which I fully agree, but they serve a good purpose to educate new and existing GAD readers like me on titles and authors they might not ever have known. If Tom Mead’s book and Top 10 list attract new readers to the greatness of GAD particular younger ones, then both exceeded their expectations in my my view.
Finally, is The Hollow Man the greatest Carr? It depends on the criteria as listed above and I know I like Judas Window, Whispers, She Died a Lady, Green Capsule, Till Death, Goblin Wood, etc. better. But that said, it is the one Carr that has been in near continuous print and so is an accessible way to find out that the world of GAD is far more than the wondrous Agatha Christie to lure new readers. That’s good for all of us.
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Great, thanks Brad. Really looking forward to it.
Thank you, Brad for this review of Tom Mead’s book. Looking forward to reading this one and have also just ordered Two Bottles of Relish based on his top ten list. Looks like a fun weekend ahead.
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Brad I love this post, particularly the setting against which the review is written. Mysteries are a great salve for these very trying times. Oh, and good review too!
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