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.