#587: As If by Magic (2009) by Dolores Gordon-Smith

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Disorientated, drenched, and on the verge of a fever, George Lassiter wanders the streets of London until attracted to a particular house which he breaks into in order to warm himself by the fire.  While he is waiting in the darkness and warmth, three people enter, one of them apparently drops dead on the spot, and Lassiter beats a hasty retreat before being caught by a local bobby.  Upon telling his story, the house is investigated and no sign of a body is found, so Lassiter is carted away to the local hospital.  And when Lassiter’s friend, part-time sleuth and general man-about-town Jack Haldean, hears of his predicament, it’s the beginning of a complex and dangerous skein.

Elsewhere, Haldean’s other friend Inspector William Rackham must deal with the conundrum of a naked body found floating in the Thames, and the small matter of  a serial killer who is plucking young women off the streets at random and later depositing their corpses in that same fluvial resting place.  Adding a knackered, babbling South African to his workload seems like an insult after facing injury, but nevertheless Lassiter falls into Rackham’s lap and it’s via this association that Haldean is made aware of his friend’s predicament and gets drawn into both cases.  And, well, do you think these events might all be connected?  Who’s to say?!  But yes, yes they are.

While coming across like, and set in, the sort of adventure-based puzzle plot of the 1920s, the genius of As If by Magic (2009) is that the plot itself is nudged along with really the gentlest of touches, so that come the end, when everything joins up, there are some genuinely fabulous surprises.  The thread that develops from Lassiter having abandoned his life in South Africa to tread London’s streets is resolved so damn neatly that, were I a younger and more flexible man, I would have kicked myself for not seeing it coming.  But, see, Dolores Gordon-Smith juggles a lot of stuff here, and with an effortlessness that always had me looking for the wrong things in entirely the wrong places.

It’s difficult to explain, and I have no desire to give anything away, but a whole plot thread was running through this without me even realising that it was there until the person responsible turned up and claimed responsibility.  I simply…wasn’t looking for that, I’d been fixated on other things.  In true Golden Age style, there’s easily enough going on — the early revelation of who lives in the house Lassiter breaks into, for one, plus the reason for his insistence on everything therein being too small, plus the midway reveal of a certain something that’s as jarring and surprising as almost anything I’ve read in a good year or more — that, while your mind scatters to grab hold of these foreground threads, an inexorable weight of other events is building in the background.  And I was having so much fun with these foreground events, I was more than happy for the tsunami to sweep me along without even considering to look for a cause.

Haldean and Lassiter are very genial company — as are Haldean and Rackham, though that relationship mainly consists of Rackham showing up to tell Haldean what he, Rackham, has been doing for the last 40 pages before disappearing off again — and the whole enterprise is helped along by some lovely turns of phrase and contemporary touches.  It never occurred to me that clubs where one went dancing would have circulating ‘dance hostesses’ who would accompany any unpaired men, nor that one would be expected to pay them, nor that there was a fashion for such woman to have white make-up on their faces; the idea that a single woman visiting a single man in his rooms could be the root of scandalous gossip seems hilariously antiquated, but I’d never really considered that, either (and I suppose GAD authors avoided writing about it because, well, imagine the scandal!).  Elsewhere we have “a portly and glacially respectable butler” and business premises so ostentatious that they “might as well have set up in an Italian church” — lovely moments, both, and two of just plenty on offer.

It was an appreciable moment before she raised her eyes to his and Rackham, who had been prepared to offer sympathy, was startled to catch a look of thinly veiled anticipation.  It was almost triumphant, he thought, repelled.  Dammit, the woman might have has a row with her husband, but did she want him to be dead?  Then, just as quickly, the look vanished to be replaced by conventional worry.

I’ve not gone into the plot too much because I don’t want to give you any sense of what to ignore (or what to pay attention to, I suppose).  The synopsis on my Soho Constable hardcover edition was helpful in that regard since it gets details wrong (saying the book is set in 1922 when it opens in — and only moves forward from — November 1923, for one) and stresses aspects of the plot that I’d argue get sidelined quite quickly.  Going into this finely-tuned plot unprepared is the best advice I can offer, since there’s a lot here to enjoy when all the patterns fall out — with my only real criticism being that there’s an overburdening of what I’ll can ‘the H-word’ come the end which, while no doubt realistic, took me out of some of the finer points (the trapped cat for one…).

Too late I realise that I’ve queued this review for Hallowe’en, and so should probably have picked something with a spooky or sinister air.  A ghostly impossible crime would suffice, but I’m not entirely sure if I’d count the disappearing dead body as an impossible crime — I mention that purely because, given my predilection for such, people are going to ask, rather than as a criticism of the book — since the workings are not exactly so watertight as to warrant impossible status.  But it is a superb jumping-off point for a thoroughly enjoyable and milieu-rich Golden Age pastiche, and I’m delighted to have taken the plunge with Dolores Gordon-Smith’s work.  Expect more on here in future.

23 thoughts on “#587: As If by Magic (2009) by Dolores Gordon-Smith

  1. Thanks for the review – I’ve read a few of the Jack Haldean novel, and you’ve reminded me to start from the beginning. Or rather, you’ve persuaded me it’s worth starting from the beginning. 😊


    • This is the third, not the first, but it’s as good a place to start as any; I wasn’t aware of not understanding anything — is ignorance of ignorance possible? — so one could leap in here if one wished.


  2. I’ve read the first two of this series – having seen the Puzzle Doctor’s very complimentary reviews over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel – and I enjoyed them quite a bit. Particularly the first one – the second had a bit too much of the “Russian danger”, but on the whole was very readable as well. Good to know that I should continue with this one.


  3. Having read all but the last two books (now in my TBR pile), and enjoyed them all, I can say that this is a series worth reading. Gordon-Smith does the Golden Age very well.


    • Excellent news, it’s always pleasing to discover a new author’s work and be encouraged that other books by them bear out the same experience. Thanks for letting me know!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I decided to try it because, er, it was on my TBR 🙂

      But I guess I got Dolores on my TBR in the first place because a) she’s a Freeman Wills Crofts fan and b) her talks at Bodies show a degree of insight and analysis of the genre that I very much appreciate: the Ronald Knox one in particular, as was the Max Carrados one from this year.

      When someone has that much to offer that enlightens as well as entertaining, their books have to be worth a go! This is in part why I wish Tony Medawar wrote more that just introductions…


  4. You’ve sold me on this one. I think these are in the CPL system. It’ll save me some money.

    Interesting that with all the old mysteries you’ve read you’ve never encountered the dance hall milieu or the fact that single men rarely all were allowed female visitors in their rented rooms. What about all those ever watchful landladies keeping an eye out for shameful hussies and hanky panky in their homes? Never met one of them in all these books? That particular facet of single men and women renting rooms in homes with private owners who in essence police their renters’ private lives occurs a lot in all types of vintage fiction. I don’t know why you think that GAD writers would shy away from it. Lucy Malleson as “Anthony Gilbert” wrote about it a lot. And what H word can appear so often in a mystery novel that it would ruin the reading experience? Surely not Hell.


    • What about all those ever watchful landladies keeping an eye out for shameful hussies and hanky panky in their homes?

      Ha. I suppose, given that I’d never really thought about it, that it was a sort of generational thing, or a “I don’t want guests messing up my house” kind of thing, maybe. In y mind, it seems to be more of a movie trope than a book one, which I assumed was a chance to shoehorn in someone who’s good a pulling disapproving comedy faces to inject a few yuks into an otherwise dry moment.

      I don’t know why you think that GAD writers would shy away from it.

      Largely because I don’t seem to have encountered it! I guess the romance angle of GAD became quite pronounced after a while, and, since you knew the Lead Man and the Lead Woman were more than likely to end up together, any such scenes of them alone together were always made as consensual and obstacle-free as possible. I dunno. But in my reading of GAD — which is by no means as thorough as it could be, I’m well aware — I feel that I’ve picked up a pretty good sense of the morals of the age…and that element of it never seems to have cropped up to my recall. And, given how well-documented everything else was, it’s not that illogical to presume it was shied away from, is it?

      As to ‘the H-word’, I promise you’ll know it when you get to it 🙂


      • Hello JJ. If we’re talking about the same ‘H Word’, and I think we must be, I saw it coming but really hoped I was wrong – I didn’t even bother checking back to confirm my suspicions. Spoiled it a bit for me but I still gave it a 3/5.


        • Well, since you’ve read, allow my to rot13 the word I have in mind: ulcabgvfz.

          Didn’t spoil it too much for me, given how the principle was pretty widely used in GAD and so it just felt like a throwback. In fact, if anything, I was probably more forgiving of it here than in GAD, weirdly.


          • You’ve got a good point there. I’m embarrassed to admit that I read it thinking it was a true GAD and only later saw it was written fairly recently!


            • Maybe I wasn’t quite fair, so from a more informed perspective (i.e now I know it was written in the 21st Century) I’m going to try A Fete Worse Than Death, despite the awful title!


  5. I have been meaning to take the plunge ever since this most delightful woman shook my hand at one of the nicest-attended dinners of my life! Since this is you first read of Dolores’ work, did you get any sense that you were missing important history by not starting at the beginning of the series?


    • Nope, no sense of missing any key details or relationships or whatever — in true GAD fashion, you could pick this up and read it without having read any of the others. Unless I’ve missed something gigantic, that is 😳

      Williams and Whiting are reissuing the first three apparently before the end of the year, too, so they’ll be easier to find before too long.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Three years later I’ve finally read this. Pleasant enough. But falling short of the mark for me. Rather disappointing in fact. Especially the action styled cinematic ending. More like a James Bond movie! Doesn’t fit the tone of rest of the book. A chase through a nightclub that actually goes through the kitchen? Ugh. Tired cliche. And the runaway plane, the bridge disaster, and death by propeller. Too insane. I enjoyed it mostly until that over the top ending. George’s mystery plot was nicely handled and wish it was just about him and his problems. I disliked all the aircraft business and family squabbling and Nigel’s never-ending tirades (ugh!). That seemed to be the bulk of the book, extraneous historical trivia that has not much to do with what I felt was the real plot with George and the mystery of the vanished dead girl. IMO, the entire novel is overburdened with tangential subplots. Imagine me saying such a thing! I love story and incident in mystery novels but good heavens… Dolores has just flooded this book with plot. At 294 pages it was too long and overstuffed for me.

    Interestingly, I had just read a very early 20th century novel in which the “H word”featured prominently and though it was hokey and easy to figure out I believed it 100%. Unlike in this book— less easy to figure out and rather far-fetched that it was ongoing and triggered so easily. Of course the other book was written in 1910. That one also dealt with spiritualism, fake medium stuff, and staged ghosts, etc. (a fave subject of mine as you know. So I was biased). Probably because it was an authentic early 20th century novel it was much more believable for me than this novel which attempts to re-create early 20th century. I don’t actually think she does a very good job with that either. There’s some drifting into contemporary language and idioms and modern behavior that I found distracting. Just a B+ from me. I wanted more fizz and sparkle in this champagne cocktail.


    • Yeah, this is the nature of reading, eh? I thoroughly enjoy how the genre lines get a little straddled in this series, and I don’t suppose I’ve ever picked up a C.21st book and expected it to fully recapture the idiom of 80 or 90 years previously — good luck if you c an find them, but I’m guessing such examples are thin on the ground!

      If I remember correctly, Off the Record might be more in the traditional line, so were you moved to try Jack & Co. again you could always try that. Or maybe the later entiries, which I’m yet to read are more in that style: Puzzle Doctor thoroughly enjoyed Forgotten Murder and her most recent, The Chapel in the Woods.

      Whatever comes next, may you fare more favourably!


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