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.