#1061: Death and the Conjuror (2022) by Tom Mead

Death and the Conjuror

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Tom Mead is that rare thing these days: an author writing detective fiction in the classic tradition with some actual interest in the classic tradition of detective fiction. When he peppers the text of Death and the Conjuror (2022), his very entertaining and easy-to-read debut novel, with references to the work of R. Austin Freeman, G.K. Chesterton, Melville Davisson Post and others, you know it’s the result of time spent reading the genre rather than a few quick Google searches to give him credibility. And when he plays the games of identity and location as well as he does here, you also know he’s having a joyous time playing in his favourite sandbox…and wonderful it is to see.

We find ourselves in London in September 1936, with new play Miss Death about to open in the West End and bring various people into its orbit. Not least of these is the acclaimed Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Anselm Rees, who has as one of his select group of patients the play’s leading lady, Miss Della Cookson. When Rees is murdered under seemingly impossible circumstances — throat slit in his locked office not long after his housemaid heard him talking on the telephone — and Della Cookson proves to be the first person on the scene…well, some explaining needs to be done.

I typically read in short bursts these days, getting through books with a “little and often” approach that will find me abandoning any other task in order to spend my time reading. But I honestly gulped down Death and the Conjuror in two not-at-all-mammoth sessions that flew by on account of just how damn easily Mead’s prose reads. Not only are his little descriptions note perfect — c.f. a woman having “the pale skin and crimson lips of a consumptive on the fade”, a public school type dismissed as being “as vapid and vacuous as a half-pumped balloon”, a house party “almost putrid in its decadence” — there’s also plenty of humour winking at you from beneath the stiff shirt-front of its 1930s setting:

[Claude Weaver’s] wife often made the hyperbolic claim that he seldom came out of his attic, that he preferred its company to hers. This was mostly untrue. He frequently came out — he just preferred that she did not notice him.

Into the melee of impossibilities that will result — three in total, including the vanishing of a painting under lock and key (disappointing) and the appearance of a body in a watched and otherwise inaccessible lift (pleasingly bonkers) — steps ex-stage magician and expert in misdirection Joseph Spector, an apparently ageless man with an apparently limitless supply of magic gimmicks to foist on those around him (his puncturing of the self-importance of the doorman Royce is especially enjoyable). I particularly liked the touch that Mead has his policeman Inspector Flint consult Spector in the matter of baffling crimes because, well, they’re not the usual fare a copper should have to deal with, eh?

[I]ncreasingly over the last few years, he had been conscious of a burgeoning subgenre of crime, which had rolled over the city like fog. These were the “impossible” crimes…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. To solve a crime of that variety you need a special sort of brain, which Flint simply did not possess. And so it becomes essential to look elsewhere for your answers.

And, crucially, Mead delivers on this promise of murder as a puzzle, giving us not just the trappings of the best that the Golden Age had to offer — mysterious night-time visitors with obscured faces, a suspect who suffers from “fugue states”, contradictory testimony, events piling up around a small cast in a limited timeframe — but also inviting the reader into the game: having a character point out, for example, that Dr. Rees was only heard through the door and not seen, or naming as a possible identity for that muffled night-time visitor a character that the savvy detective fiction reader might have been suspecting from the off. This is game-playing in the grand tradition, heightened by a treatise on locked room murders that is aided by John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) having been published the year before.

If the setup and complex nature of the imbricated plot strands is delightful, and the simple pattern Mead weaves from this fabric pleasingly straightforward, if a little reliant on coincidence — in fairness, another Golden Age trapping — some of the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit as seamlessly as they might. I applaud the decision to add footnotes referring the reader back to certain clues earlier in the book, but even with this inclusion I feel some of Mead’s clewing is too slight to draw attention to itself in this way (the presence of something and its facility in allowing the illusions achieved are not, after all, the same thing…). I also feel the motive rather comes out of nowhere, but then motives are often of secondary consideration when you’re having this much fun, and the answer he draws around events is pleasingly fun and shows multiple cogs at work in a way that puzzle nerds like myself rhapsodise about.

Don’t let my cavilling dissuade you from reading this, however, since the successes here far outnumber the stumbles; Mead really has done a superb job bringing the drawing room attitudes, puzzle plotting, and clever explanations of the Golden Age into the modern day, and in doing so has written an immensely readable and hugely enjoyable book that will delight fans of the genre’s heyday. Hell, there’s even a proper challenge to the reader, which more than makes Mead a man after my own heart…! And, best of all, I finished this very excited to see what Mead comes up with next — which, thankfully, we won’t have long to wait and find out, since his second novel The Murder Wheel (2023) is being published in a few months. Here’s hoping a long and successful career awaits him; one of these every 12 months would be a real delight, and is no less than the man deserves for how fully he has embraced what the genre has to offer. Excellent stuff.

34 thoughts on “#1061: Death and the Conjuror (2022) by Tom Mead

  1. I felt that the motive was sufficiently fair play, but that the reader did not have much material to connect the motive—mentioned sufficiently early as a possibility—to the actual culprit. That information is simply dumped on the reader, and only as part of the denouement.

    My bigger source of moderate disappointment, however, was that most of the characters remained a bit too much ‘card board’ or ‘pawns on the writer’s chessboard’ to my taste.


    • Yes, hat’s more what I mean — the information relating to the motive is provided, but then its use as the motive drops out of nowhere.


    • I would say cardboard characters and them feeling like pawns on a chessboard are tropes (and drawbacks to some) of the locked room genre at this point. I have no memory of a single character in the dozen or so JDC novels I’ve read. It’s something you have to accept if you like these things.


      • The majority of the characters we read are going to be forgotten, so I suppose it’s just a matter of how you feel about them while reading the book their in: if they breath sufficient life into the actions we’re asked to care about, I’m happy. And that was certainly he case for me here. But, as with every opinion on fiction, I can understand that others might feel differently.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad you got round to this and enjoyed it! Your opinion here pretty much matches with mine.
    A few dropped threads here and there but I had a great time and the solution to the first crime had me kicking myself for at least one bit of it. What more could you want from a freshly written golden age style mystery?


  3. Pleased to see that you enjoyed this. It’s not perfect, but for me it was lots of fun.

    Spector and Flint complement each other well. The solutions were complex for the doctor’s and elevator murders and I am skeptical that the culprit had the skill and the luck for all of that to work. I had to read the ending twice to ensure I could follow the solutions although footnoting the page location of the clues in the denouement helped. Nevertheless, what a great read. It reminded me of Carr’s The Judas Window in that similar complexity and skepticism of the culprit’s ingenuity, skill and luck in no way dampened my enthusiasm for that GAD classic.


    • Oh, well, if you want things to be likely then impossible crimes aren’t the subgenre to be searching in 🙂

      And, surely, with all the Carr reprints we’re getting at the moment, The Judas Window must be on the way soon…


  4. Also I have begun to check out Tom Mead’s short fiction available in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. in the latest issue of that publication, I recently read The Sleeper of Coldwreath. What’s not to love: Joseph Spector, his mute Watson-like assistant (Clotilde), eerie atmosphere, a locked room mystery and a body in a frozen pond surrounded by undisturbed snow all in less than 20 pages.


    • I had a subscription to EQMM for a little while, but too little of it was of interest to me. If you could buy individual stories I’d definitely snap up more of their stuff.


  5. “Tom Mead is that rare thing these days: an author writing detective fiction in the classic tradition with some actual interest in the classic tradition of detective fiction.”

    Amen to that. Aside from self-published authors, do you know any other authors that qualify for this these days?

    I’m excited to check out The Murder Wheel next.


    • Martin Edwards springs to mind; Anthony Horowitz doesn’t strike me as someone with a full appreciation of the Golden Age, but he’s trying his best, too… 🙂


      • Thanks, I actually do have Blackstone Fell checked out and was interested in Sepulchre from what I heard. Horowitz imo is not so focused on fair play detection, and I personally don’t enjoy his works. Thanks all the same though.


  6. Well, shoot, I’ll have to buy this. It’s nice to see a modern author not just placing their story back in the time of Christie, but including actual plot elements that draw us to mysteries from this time in the first place; the impossibilities, the magician detective, the challenge to the reader. And recognizing that many impossible crimes work best when set in a time that ruled out a number of solutions involving modern technology.


    • That technological restriction is, for me, at least part of the fun — the best ones are the ones that have a universality in their workings and…man, I can feel a My Top Ten Favourite Impossible Crimes post coming on…

      Liked by 2 people

    • Indeed the 1930ies feel like the perfect setting for a mystery, but of course, an author could prove us wrong by writing some great locked-room mysteries set in the modern day.


      • An imperfect novel with a clever impossibility that builds well on modern technology, The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts really shows the way in this regard.


  7. Here’s hoping a long and successful career awaits him

    Not everyone was pleased with my lukewarm review from last year, but wholeheartedly echo your sentiment. I see Death and the Conjuror as Mead’s It Walks by Night and I’m more than willing to give him the years needed to produce his equivalents of The Three Coffins and The Judas Window.


    • Hey, there’s nothing wrong with having high standards — this is the grandest game in the world, so we want people to play it well. I have too much experience of what happens when we allow shoddy workmanship into this finest of subgenres.

      Onward to The Murder Wheel…!


  8. No, I don’t have to ‘accept’ cardboard characters and them feeling like pawns on a chessboard if I don’t like cardboard characters and them feeling like pawns on a chessboard.

    And, no, it’s not because you don’t have a single memory of a single character in a JDC novel that everyone else who appreciates his work, or even locked room work more generally, must by necessity share your amnesia or your lack of appreciation for above-average characterization.


    • Well then, I sincerely apologise for suggesting that alternative perspectives might exist in the interest of continuing a conversation. Won’t happen again.


      • My sharp follow-up comment showed up in the wrong place in the thread and was in response to Zen’s message imposing their experiences and preferences on others that they just “have to accept” (sic). It was not in response to your own comment arguing for exactly the opposite—that alternative perspectives might exist. We agree on that point. You just put it much more diplomatically than I did.


  9. This novel, along with James Scott Byrnside’s output and The Red Death Murders, has definitely given me much hope that there will be a sizable uptick in impossible-crime-oriented detective fiction in the coming years. This was one of my absolute favorite reads of last year; it gave me the same kind of curiosity-filled joy that the best Christies, Carrs, and Brands do.


    • Well, I’d suggest for such a resurgence to take place you’d first need modern writers to be versed in and motivated by the challenge of meeting Golden age standards…and I just fear that not enough are. But I’m happy to be proved wrong in the years ahead.


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