book review

Death and the Conjuror

Tom Mead’s Death and the Conjuror has a lot of things going for it, but what impressed me the most was its measurement. The narrative events (revelations for you non-mystery fanatics) are doled out in such a way that our attention to the suspects resembles a whirlwind, returning back to characters we had confidently crossed off our lists only to have them appear more guilty than before. The plot threads, sometimes seemingly loose and at other times wound too tightly, settle into a satisfying balance by the end–a well-filigreed merger of event and character. It’s tremendous fun, a treat for those of us who adore murder mysteries.

THE PROBLEM: There are three, but only one of them takes up most of the narrative thrust and it’s a good one. Dr. Anselm Rees is found murdered inside his study. The good doctor’s time of death is quite specific as he not only accepted a visitor into his study but also took a phone call. The door and windows are locked. Even if there was some trickery, the outside of the door was watched by the doctor’s maid and the flower bed outside shows no footprints. In other words, no one escaped the room.

Throw in an impossible strangulation and the theft of a painting with a house full of guests, and you’ve got a fantastic set-up.

THE INVESTIGATION: Tom is obviously a fan of Clayton Rawson. While I admire aspects of Rawson’s work, the fact is I can’t stand his detective. Merlini lays on the wise but secretive (I know it sounds weird but TOO secretive) act so thick that when the 100th exasperated exclamation of the detective/Watson arrives, I too want to strangle Merlini. Mead’s conjurer is Joseph Spector, and I like him much more.

When Spector confounds George Flint (the cop), he does so while actually contemplating the problem and moving things forward rather than from side to side. This gives the narrative the movement which I feel is lacking in Rawson.

The doctor had three patients (helpfully labelled A, B, and C), but there are plenty of other suspects to throw around. The relationships of the characters come out during the scenes of interrogation, and this is what drives the action of the narrative. Mead is uninterested in using action to further his plot. DatC is a throwback to when a problem is presented and then properly investigated. The slim threads of action (the alley scene for example) are not what drives things.

THE SOLUTION: I think the locked room solution is terrific. While some may be unimpressed with the exact “mechanics”, the PLOT aspect of the solution is wonderful. It’s thrilling to see complexity used in this manner The elevator problem is good, but I would have appreciated more of an investigation. The painting theft is fun in an old-fashioned way, but fairly inconsequential. Those two are essentially window dressing. It’s the locked-room murder that stands out.

The quibbles I have with DatC are minor and mostly forgotten. But there is one I’d like to address, and this is more of a general criticism for modern mystery authors-myself included, rather than this book specifically. One of the great fears for murder mystery authors is that the reader will solve the puzzle before the detective. While most authors (certainly those respectful of the game) make sure to include clues, the fear of giving up the solutions makes us stingier than is necessary. Giving a lot of clues is a delicate game to be sure, but one I think is worth the risk. I felt this book could have gone further in cluing (for example nyzbfg oevatvat Fgraubhfr naq Jrnire vagb pbagnpg jvgu bar nabgure naq univat Fgraubhfr ivfvoyl hcfrg ng gur abgvba — fbzrguvat nybat gubfr yvarf). Mead could have gone quite far in that direction without me being able to solve his puzzle AND being even more satisfied at the conclusion. In other words, instead of doing the bare minimum to qualify as fair play, we should take more risks. This is a problem I have in my writing and one I have resolved to address in the future. And if the game is solved by the reader…well, playing is still a lot of fun. Just a thought.

All in all, this was a joy to read. It moves, it thrills, in fact, it gave me a lot of the same feelings I got when I read The Red House Mystery and first became attracted to the genre. Highly recommended.

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