Fellow GAD enthusiast Tom Mead has met with great success with Death and the Conjuror, his first novel to feature magician-detective Joseph Spector. It’s a loving and clever take on the classic locked room mystery, and it has garnered deservedly nice reviews for its strict adherence to the rules of classic detection and its multiplicity of impossible crimes, all couched in a charming narrative. His second book in the series isn’t due out until summer, but Mead has provided Spector fans with a tasty hors d’heuvre, “The Sleeper of Coldwreath,” which can be found in the March/April 2023 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
I don’t remember visiting Spector’s crooked house on Jubilee Street before or meeting his ever-silent maid Clotilde (whose duties include serving tea, eavesdropping on clients and low key “Watson-ing”), but it’s at his home where the sleuth is presented with a problem by the treasurer of the Greenwich Psychical Research Collective. Mead provides a splendid portrait of the fellow:
“(Elliot) Weblyn was a pink blancmange in a pinstripe suit. His ruddy, jowled face and bulbous red nose told quite a tale, and his piggish little eyes held a mixture of intellectual curiosity and buffoonish wonderment . . . He came from the generation of upper class for whom eccentricities such as butterfly collecting or ghost hunting became a life’s work rather than an occasional flight of fancy.”
Somnambulism as a horror trope has fascinated me since the first time I saw the great German Expressionist silent, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and so the introduction of that subject lends a Grand Guignol tone to the proceedings. Forty years earlier, a man named Dr. Peberdy, who claimed to be well versed in the hypnotic arts, was challenged to prove his powers by a financier named Lester Brownlow. At Coldwreath, his country home, Peberdy put Brownlow in a trance in front of witnesses and led him to an upstairs bedroom, where the hypnotized man himself locked and bolted the door. A short time later, while waiting in the downstairs parlor, Peberdy and the witnesses were bombarded by a scream which seemed to travel throughout the house, leading them back to the locked bedroom. And when they broke down the door – “Brownlow had vanished from the face of the earth!”
Peberdy died soon after the event, leaving the house to his daughters. But to that day, a spectre (not Spector) can be seen wandering about Coldwreath “with half-lidded eyes, as though in a trance.” With the permission of Peberdy’s surviving daughter, Weblyn invites Joseph Spector to investigate the eerie sightings. The stakes are high – both Weblyn and a rival psychic investigator hope to top each other before each publishes his magnum opus – and so Spector and Clotilde accompany Weblyn to Coldwreath.
The house and its inhabitants are suitably spooky, although Mrs. Nix, the “wan and cadaverous” daughter, professes to not believe in ghosts and to have welcomed Weblyn only because “I have reached an age where the few pleasures in my life stem from scrutinizing the foibles of other people.” Another researcher, Francis Tulp, joins them and has set up thirty-four cameras around the house to capture the spirit’s image should it manifest. The night that follows is a frightening one, and once more those present at Coldwreath are confronted with a locked door, behind which lies a room that should have been occupied . . . but is now empty!
Mead lays out a baffling problem before us and crams a great deal of mystery into ten or twelve pages. The room itself seems devoid of secret passages or other flummery, the missing person seemed incapable of moving about without assistance, the evidence of Tulp’s cameras indicates nobody had moved about at all – not even the Sleeper of Coldwreath! – and when a body is dramatically found (the setpiece for this is suitably creepy), it is surrounded by that singular lack of evidence that is the joy of all mystery lovers: no footprints in the snow!
The solution to the problems of both the past and present disappearances are varied and suitably ornate, and I have to say that I would love to see the machinations of our villain filmed for posterity, especially the little Mary Poppins moment that seals a certain person’s fate! Is it all fairly played? Well, some of it is, for sure, and as for the rest, like certain features of the house and the question of motive in both cases . . . but then, I am always baffled by these sorts of problems, so I just sit back, let them happen and seldom play along! Mead ends the whole affair on a comically Carrian note, and it leaves me excited to meet up with Joseph Spector again when The Murder Wheel comes out this July.
2 thoughts on “GHOSTS IN SHORTS: “The Sleeper of Coldwreath” by Tom Mead”
Thanks for highlighting this. I enjoyed Death of a Conjuror and didn’t know that Tom Mead’s second Joseph Spector book is coming later this year. I look forward to that and in the mean time, ordered a copy of this magazine to read “The Sleeper of Coldwreath”.
This was my first time reading Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and I had fun reading The Sleeper of Coldwreath. What’s not to love: Joseph Spector, a mute Clotilde, eerie atmosphere, a locked room mystery and best of all a body in a frozen pond surrounded by undisturbed snow all in less than 20 pages.
I am now tracking down the other Mead short stories until the The Murder Wheel is out later this year.