Well, it was bound to happen! A pandemic comes along, and you stop teaching. There’s nothing to do but stare at the walls, studiously avoid that mountain of books comprising your TBR pile, and desultorily post in your blog about this or that mediocre novel that you read in Book Club. And then – inspiration! You grab hold of that idea that has been festering in your soul years for years, sit down at your typewriter – yes, folks, your TYPEWRITER! – and you do what you’ve dreamed of doing all your life: you write that mystery novel!
Unfortunately, that person is not me. The good news? It’s my dear friend JJ who is actually living the dream. JJ is Jim Noy, blogger and occasional podcaster over at The Invisible Event, and The Red Death Murders is his first impossible-crime-historical-homage-to-Poe mystery novel, based on what coincidentally happens to be my favorite E.A. Poe short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.”
For those of you who have never read it, “Masque” (which Jim thoughtfully includes as an afterword in his book, complete with annotations that provide insight into how the story inspired him) is a neat exercise in the cost of hubris and should be required reading for every anti-vaxxer on this earth today. Poe manufactures a horrific plague that is laying waste to some unnamed, perhaps Medieval kingdom, where jolly Prince Prospero invites a thousand noble friends to inhabit a redecorated abbey with him and party the plague away. They all think they can cheat Death! Aha! They – like some of you, perhaps? – haven’t read enough Poe.
When The Red Death Murders begins, the guests have fled and the revels have long ended. Prince Prospero lies in his bedroom, the victim of a recent attack by a monstrous entity that entered and disappeared at will. Keeping the prince company are his personal bodyguard, his physician, and a few assorted soldiers with varying degrees of allegiance to their prince. They are all attended to by the only remaining servant, a thirteen-year-old boy named Thomas who traveled to the castle with the Collingwood brothers, Marcus and William and is now allowed to sleep in a real bedroom right next door to Prospero.
It is Thomas who gets the ball rolling on the first page when, searching for the Prince’s attacker, he spies a trail of blood that leads him to a privy that has been sealed from the inside. Its contents unleash the first of what Jim promises are four-and-a-half impossible crimes. Upon initial examination of the site, Sir William’s eagle eye notes enough troubling evidence to show that Sir Oswin Bassingham did not commit suicide but was murdered. And from this start, part of the joy of the book lies in the relationship between the brothers and their servant, who take it upon themselves to figure out what happened. But before Will, Marcus and Thomas can catch their breaths, another murder will be committed, and then another . . .
In every aspect of his book, Mr. Noy is clearly channeling another fan of Edgar Allen Poe and a favorite author of so many of us – John Dickson Carr. The delight Jim takes in rubbing our noses in one impossible crime after another and then having his triumvirate of sleuths-by-default toss theories about, make progress and take a step backward is exactly what you would expect from a master of the locked room (which Carr was and Jim clearly hopes to be!) Among the dastardly deeds are two locked room puzzles that I defy you to figure out, but I have to say my favorite murder involves a poisoning – and that’s all I’m going to say about that!
The blurb at the back mentions Carr and also references “clues provided openly in the tradition of Agatha Christie . . . and a complex plot to delight fans of Seishi Yokomizo.” I’ll acknowledge the fairness of the clues and admit I missed most of them. (The final explanation provides an object lesson in the importance of paying attention to everything.) There’s also a whiff of And Then There Were None here, as the compact cast gets smaller and smaller in ever more mysterious ways. As for Yokomizo, I think another thing Red Death shares with honkaku is the elaborate architecture. The castle, with its floors of rooms bearing secrets, its battlements, multiple staircases, and surrounding moat, is almost a character in itself. (I promised Jim I wouldn’t whine about how much I wished there had been a map or two included. I lied.)
I’m sure Jim forgot to mention one other favorite author of his, the fabulous Ellery Queen. The complex and often gruesome plot reminded me both of early Carr, with its marvelous sense of history, and First Period Queen, in its love for the bizarre. Plus, Jim includes a “Challenge to the Reader” here, assuring us that we have all the facts to answer the six provided questions and consider the case solved. Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did . . .
Full disclosure here: I’ve blogged side by side with JJ since 2015. We’ve even broken bread together, and although it was gluten free, we had a terrific time. I bought this book and write this review with a great sense of pride in my friend’s accomplishment: it is a wonderful homage to classic detective fiction, exactly the sort of mystery Jim has wanted to write. Do I wish it contained a few maps? You bet I do, but –maps cost money (ask Magellan). Am I upset that I was completely fooled by the solution? Well . . . no, I thought we had made it clear long ago that most armchair detectives want to lose that game.
Rumor has it that, in keeping with the “privy motif,” JJ’s next mystery will be based on The House at Pooh Corner. (I stole that joke.) Meanwhile, The Red Death Murders is available in print or e-book wherever you access your version of Amazon.com.