Typical, eh? You wait years for a blog to talk about magic, and then suddenly three posts come along at once: the most recent In GAD We Trust episode with John Norris, and two self-published impossible crime stories — one this week, and one next. Sure, that’s stretching the definition of “at once” to an Orwellian degree, but that’s how I apparently roll.
Murder by Magic (2017) is the second of three 1930s-set books by Paul Tomlinson to feature the magician-detective Ben Vickery, professionally known as The Great Vicari, and, going by the books’ synopses, sounds like the only one to employ a borderline impossible crime. Beginning at the Palais Theatre in the fictional city of Hawksgrove, Tomlinson sets up the faded seaside glamour of the lower end of the entertainment market with its “gold paint…darkened by years of cigarette smoke” and “red velvet seats…worn smooth and faded” and the headline act of The Marvelous Mandarin:
Dark hair in a long plait hung down his back. The magician affected the movements and accent of a traditional theatre Chinaman, but it was obvious that there was an Englishman under the yellowish make-up and drooping black tendrils of fake moustache.
In a well-known final stunt, the Marvelous Mandarin — a.k.a. Charlie McNair — guides two volunteers from the audience through the inspection of a large wooden crate, then climbs inside and is chained in by these assistants. The crate is hauled into the air and begins to rotate, and, at the moment the sides are expected to fall open and reveal a magnificent cockerel in place of the pidgin English-spouting faux Chinaman, a gunshot is heard from within the box, and what looks like blood begins to drip out. The box is lowered and broken open, and there lies Charlie McNair shot to death. But, of course, there’s nothing in the crate besides Charlie, and the only holes were made in prising the crate open…so howdunnit? Given his connections with Theatre Folk, the long-retired Vickery and his assistant Jamie Malloy are approached by the brusque Inspector Grives and charged with figuring out both the how and the who of McNair’s murder — send a magician to catch a magical murderer, after all. And…yeah, there you have it.
I know what you’re like: you won’t be able to concentrate for wondering how good or bad this is, so I’ll put you out of your misery — I’d say about 70% of this book is very good. Tomlinson’s prose, which is mostly conversation, is very easy to read. The central pairing of Vickery and Malloy are slightly new acquaintances, despite having known each other for five years, and there’s simultaneously a slightly cagey awkwardness in their encounters and a smooth jokey familiarity that strikes about the right note:
“I’ve always though white rabbits to be too much of a cliche. And doves. Also, they tend to defecate at inopportune moments.”
“I promise not to do that,” Malloy said, “unless you really scare me.”
Equally, both men have secrets that Tomlinson shows great restraint in disclosing to the reader. When someone first hints at the skeleton in Vickery’s closet we simply pass over the mention, where an author of less discernment would feel the need to suddenly dump information on you, the unfamiliar reader. I mean, sure, the information is doubtless known if you’ve read the first book, but equally everyone in this book who knows Vickery’s secret behaves as people would when they’re aware of potentially embarrassing information about someone: they refer to it, and allow the understanding to fill out the rest. I wasn’t even entirely sure what this secret was until maybe 40% of the way into the book — and, let’s be clear, it’s not one of those Dark, Brooding, Motivating Secrets that lazy protagonists dwell on every two pages to show how Deep they are — so incidentally is it treated, and that’s the way I like my background character work.
Things move at a good pace, too, although that reliance on dialogue to progress matters leads to some minor pacing problems. Chief among these is that the actions people are performing while talking seem to flash by in no time at all: unless there are huge gaps between each person speaking — and we’ve no reason to assume we’re not told the entire conversation — the denizens of this universe can, for instance, boil a kettle and make and drink a cup of tea in the time it takes three men to exchange pleasantries, and the speed at which a beef wellington is dispatched left me picturing the diner simply unhinging his jaw and pouring the plate of food straight down his gullet. This heavy focus on what people are saying and not what they’re doing treats actions as flotsam in the creative picture and tends to unsettle the development of proceedings. It’s not that Tomlinson’s description of action is bad, per se, there’s a half decent ‘rescue mission’ about halfway through, but he hasn’t yet mastered describing the two at the same time.
The investigation largely progresses from one conversation to another in a pleasingly linear way, and while I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the sheer absence of any detection — every single person they need to find is already known to Vickery, it repeatedly transpires — there’s also the counter-argument that this is why he was brought into the investigation. Alas, when moving away from this linear plot focus difficulties creep in. For instance, the one person Vickery doesn’t know seems to know about him, and seeks him out in a way that breaks the chronology of events prior to that point — saying “I came straight to see you because I just saw X being kidnapped” when I’m pretty sure X has been missing for a couple of days. Or the side-plot about the disputed parentage of a young man who comes to hire Vickery, only for Vickery to say “Well, your mother is the only one who knows…so I’ll ask your mother” when, like, surely the grown-ass man could do that himself. All Vickery does is listen to this 20 year-old whinge about not knowing who is father is, then tell the kid’s mother to talk to her son…and she does. And, good heavens, that seems to take up so much space. And don’t get me started on the “suspect confesses to a crime he couldn’t have committed to protect someone he loves” stuff. There’s not much padding in this book, and it’s a bizarre credit to Tomlinson that it stands out as much as it does, given how focussed the rest of proceedings are.
But, as I say, it’s easy to read, and very enjoyable. I was never really bored, and can’t find too much at fault with the narrative surrounding the central crime: Vickery’s brief return to the stage with Malloy as his assistant is very well handled for the demons in his past Vickery must face, neither excessive nor exiguous in how the events which resulted in his retirement are relayed. And Tomlinson’s refusal to play up the lachrymose elements of the plot extend to an admirable practicality on Vickery’s part in how he views his role in the present day investigation: when a man is killed after Vickery and Malloy seek information from him and Malloy wishes to wallow in the self-pity of “X is dead because of us, isn’t he?”, Vickery’s response is wonderful:
“No, Jamie, he’s dead because someone broke his neck. That wasn’t us.”
So 70% is great. But most of the remaining 30% relates to the presentation, commission, and explanation of that opening murder.
For one thing, we don’t get a clear idea of the order of events until the crime is being explained at the end of the book. For instance, it’s significant that Charlie’s assistant is discovered beaten over the head, but there’s never really a point where that is worked into the order of events. Yeah, yeah, maybe we could imply it by reading between a few scattered lines, but there’s no reason not to reconstruct all events around the commission of the crime except for the fact that it clearly gives the workings away. Secondly, when they visit the scene of the crime Vickery makes a few profound and contextless statements about the commission of the murder — stating the time and place where the murder took place — that aren’t explained at the time…and then it turns out that how he came to those conclusion isn’t explained at any point. But, since he of course turns out to be correct, surely it would be good to how us the detective at work. And this is doubly problematic because on the couple of occasions we are privy to the reasoning Vickery uses to reaches certain conclusions — a couple of very enjoyable false solutions are bandied about, for one thing — there are holes in it you could drive a David Copperfield illusion through.
And then the correct answer — both in terms of who and how — is…flawed. For one thing, several suspects have alibis, our killer among them: a presumably false alibi nevertheless vouched for by two other witnesses. But it’s never explained how they could both be doing the murder and in the other place they were seen by two people — I’ll accept that one witness could be lying, but both…? And, given the importance placed of stagehands to work the off-stage elements of the tricks, surely one would be present when the trick was arranged. And there’s no need for the assistant to be involved in the first place, right? And where do people get this impression that it’s easy to lug around a dead body? Also, the physical evidence to enable the crime to appear as it did would be very apparent, but is never mentioned. Also also, Tomlinson’s reliance on dialogue completely robs his grand finale of any drama: everyone is gathered on the stage, the guilty party identified…and everyone just wanders off without asking questions like “What?” and “How?!” and “What!?!?!?” and “But…how?!>?!?!?*(^(*$$$!“. This lack of curiosity and interest suits Tomlinson’s narrative intent, but does not work in the context of people who would have been rocked by this revelation.
Oh, and the motive is…don’t get me started. Never before has a killer spouted such claptrap in justifying their behaviour.
But, dammit, the scheme is bloody fabulous. When you see how the various elements contribute to the final collage of the crime, it’s actually rather ingenious, and Tomlinson deserves credit for getting the pieces to line up as they do. No, it’s not without flaws — I’ve read me enough 1930s mysteries to know that a note sent from a typewriter is a key piece of evidence for any detective worth their salt, and that the precise machine used should have been found and utilised as a nail in the coffin of the case — but the puzzle-rich nature of it is pleasing to my pattern-fixated brain. Hell, even those distracting side-street plot strands feature meaningfully, which I had not been expecting. So, Paul Tomlinson, my congratulations on the great job of pulling this all together — I mean that, it’s a very, very admirable performance.
As a result, I finish this review conflicted. Tomlinson writes well, renders his settings with an impressive restraint, handles the show-don’t-tell elements of his characters intelligently, and has the sort of control over his plot elements that a great number of authors would do well to observe. But his central mystery is badly bungled and his reliance on too many unexplored details leave the overall impression of something poorly thought through and sorely lacking. This is a fun and highly competent example of the puzzle plot that will frustrate as much as it delights — I don’t know if I’ll read the other Great Vicari mysteries, but if Tomlinson takes on the impossible crime a second time I promise to check it out.
Past and future Adventures in Self-Publishing are collected here.