book review

The Red Death Murders

It’s a common murder-mystery tactic – isolating characters in one place. Yes, authors employ this device to ratchet up the panic and tension, but I suspect their main reason is to prevent the victims/suspects from simply leaving.

“What’s that? There’s an unknown murderer in the house? I know! I’ll drive to New Jersey, change my name, and join a rhumba band until this whole thing blows over!”

I’ve never read The Rhumba Band Murders, but I’m guessing it sucks. No, no, everyone must remain in play and on location as both potential murderer and victim. The beloved isolation techniques (fallen bridge, a broken boat, inclement weather, etc.) carry with them an automatic sense of parody. You’ve got to have a reason for the characters to attend the island/meeting/reunion, and that reason has nothing to do with the impetus for writing the novel. It’s fraught with risk.

The Red Death Murders by Jim Noy is to be commended then for giving us an isolation technique that is both perfectly reasonable and rich with blood-stained imagery. In a typical murder mystery, characters will experience fear at the sight of blood. Here that fear is doubly justified, for the blood itself can kill. TRDM takes place during the fourteenth century, more specifically in the time of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Yeah, Prince Prospero is a character.

The imagery during the first half of the novel (along with its implied dread) sets the mood much the same way Carr often did. And this book will remind you of Carr many times along the way — especially in a certain tactic used by the killer. Rather than shyly present it, Noy fully embraces its far-fetchedness. It reminded me of the solution to The Reader is Warned.

Whether or not TRDM qualifies as a historical mystery depends on your precise definition of the term. Let it be known that this novel possesses engaging verisimilitude rather than a numbing demonstration of the author’s exhaustive research. You all know what I’m talking about. You’re reading a mystery and suddenly you fall into a 1000-word description of the era. Noy treats us to the chores and customs of the time within the story, bringing back many historical tidbits to back up the solutions (real and false) which is pleasing to read. We get to know how they spend their mornings and what they do about food and their fear of animals getting inside the castle. But he never goes outside the narrative to present unnecessary information.

We see the world through the eyes of Thomas, a servant boy who is one of a mere handful of men remaining at the castle to stay by the Prince’s side. For most of the book, Thomas is essentially the Watson character. He makes impressive observations, but two other characters are the sleuths: his master Sir William and his best friend Sir Marcus. The warm relationship between these three characters and their subtle manipulations of the others in the castle forms the backbone of the novel and accounts for its ultimate direction. But of course, we’re not really here for that.

The Problem: We get our first one right off the bat. Sir Oswin is found dead inside the privy, his wrists slit and the door secured by rope wrapped around two nails on the inside of the door. If you’re thinking it must be suicide, this is probably the first murder mystery you’ve ever read. Our three main characters quickly (and cleverly) determine this was a murder. As the plot progresses, we get more impossibilities including a vanishing, an impossible poisoning, another “suicide”, and a host of inexplicable happenings including a delightful corpse puzzle worthy of Halter and a red-cloaked figure haunting the castle…also worthy of Halter. The problems are wonderful and effortlessly presented.

The Investigation: It’s mostly our three characters parsing the crime scenes, hypothesizing about the killer, and then interacting with the suspects. The author gives us enough clues about the characters’ histories to allow us to form theories of hidden loyalties and motivations, but for every step forward, the events seem to make less sense. The revelations are well-clued and surprising. Not all of them had equal impact — the one at the end of Part 2 feels oddly underwhelming in retrospect — but they are used intelligently to slowly build a grand design.

The Solution: My favorite part of the book is the whirlwind of solutions and accusations from the survivors. The author is particularly adept at showing previous statements in a new light with subverted meanings and, rather than stopping, subverting those fresh meanings. It’s tremendous fun and handled with panache. Again, it’s obvious the author has a love for Carr and Halter. The reveal of the killer (its ever widening, maddening circles of logic and its methodical nature) is as good as anything from their works.

The major complaint of the solution and the novel is the lack of a diagram for the privy murder. Though this isn’t exactly spoilery, I’m still going to ROT13 it. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t decode it.

Vg’f abg gung gur cevapvcyr vf qvssvphyg gb haqrefgnaq, ohg vg’f abg rnfl gb cvpgher. Lrf, V haqrefgnaq gur ryrzragf bs zbzraghz naq tenivgl, ohg vg gnxrf na njshyyl ybat gvzr gb rkcynva vg naq V fgvyy pbhyqa’g qenj vg rknpgyl. Urer’f gur qrny: Nalgvzr n fbyhgvba vaibyirf zrpunavfzf/nhgb frg-hcf (or gurl fvzcyr be pbzcyrk) n qvntenz vf cersreerq. V yrnearq guvf yrffba onpx ba Gur Bcravat Avtug Zheqref jura n pevgvp (V sbetrg uvf anzr, ohg V guvax vg eulzrf jvgu gur nhgube bs Gur Erq Qrngu Zheqref) fnvq V fubhyq unir unq n qvntenz. Ur jnf evtug. Fvapr gura, V unir tbar bhg bs zl jnl gb unir qvntenzf. Urer’f gur qvssrerapr.

(Jvgu qvntenz): “Nu-un!”

(Jvgubhg qvntenz): “Uhu?” (erernqf) “Bxnl, V guvax V tbg vg.” (guvaxf nobhg vg zber) “Lrnu, bxnl.”

Gur qvssrerapr orgjrra gubfr gjb vf zbahzragny. Va n erprag cbfg, gur nhgube zragvbarq gung ur qvgpurq gur pbfg bs cebqhpvat sybbecynaf. Nf zhpu nf V jbhyq unir nccerpvngrq sybbecynaf, V nterr gung gurl jrera’g arprffnel. V xarj gur trbtencul bs gur pnfgyr irel jryy. Ohg gur qvntenz sbe gur cevil zheqre jbhyq unir vzcebirq vg fb zhpu. Vg’f pyrire naq vg’f jryy-pyhrq, ohg, yvxr gur zheqre va Pebsg’f “Gur Zlfgrel bs gur Fyrrcvat-Pne Rkkcerff”, vg’f uneq gb frr vg.

That said, this is an outstanding mystery, satisfying for impossible crime/plotheads like me and equally satisfying for the Christie character and motivation crowd. It uses historical world-building not only to tell the story, but also to reveal the ultimate motivations of the killer.

When I was a guest on Jim’s excellent In Gad We Trust podcast, he talked a bit about this story he was working on. It was inspired by Poe and it had some impossibilities he thought were good, but he didn’t know if or when he would get around to actually writing it. I’m glad he did. Hopefully, we’ll get more books from him. His love and talent for the genre shine here just as brightly as they do in his criticism.

1 thought on “The Red Death Murders”

  1. Thanks, James, I’m almost giddy with excitement that you enjoyed this so much — writing it was a bundle of fun, but seeing people respond to it, and in exactly the way I’d hoped given how all-out I’ve tried to go here, is just wonderful.

    And, yeah, maybe I should have tried harder to find someone to do some diagrams, but I promise I rewrote that section about 30 times, each making it clearer than the last and I even included a little allegory as part of the explanation and detection (rot13 mild spoilers: jura gurl qvfpbire gur jbexvatf ol nppvqrag, jvgu gur gjvar jenccvat vgfrys nebhaq Gubznf’ fubr) that I thought or hoped was clever enough to illustrate without, y’know, illustrations. Ah, well, you live and learn 🙂

    Maybe we should team up, find someone who can do these diagrams, and then reissue this and The Opening Night Murders with those diagrams in. In fact, let’s go the whole hog and make them both graphic novels…or, hey, I’m willing to accept £1,000,000 from Netflix for the rights and then it could just be shown on screen…


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