Death and the Conjuror

Written by Tom Mead

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Death and the Conjuror
Head of Zeus
RRP: £20
Released: February 2 2023

There is a feature in the best science fiction writing: take your premise (teleportation is possible, for instance) and work as if it is true, never questioning it. When ITV dramatised Hugh Greene’s anthologies the narrator did the same thing: ‘In late Victorian times there lived many detectives, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’. Tom Mead gives us a similar introduction to his detective, Inspector Flint: ‘… increasingly 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 – typically high-society affairs, where men in locked rooms were killed under impractical circumstances’.

We are in the north London of, say E C R Lorac, but we are in the world of locked-room master John Dickson Carr. Death and the Conjuror gives us an impossible crime – a room in which no one could leave, and in which only the victim was seen alive. A second impossible murder in a distant block of flats only adds to the puzzle. Fans of locked-room mysteries who have been wanting more will remember that Dickson Carr used an elevator in Fatal Descent, which he co-wrote with John Rhode 1939, but only the venue is common to that book and this.

Meanwhile, Tom Mead also alludes to another historic event – Sigmund Freud’s escape from Nazi-controlled Vienna along with his daughter Anna in June 1938, to work for his last few months in Hampstead. Setting his story in 1936, Tom Mead makes the victim the anglophone Dr Anselm Rees, who has left Europe with his daughter Lidia under very similar circumstances to Freud. Rees has three patients, whom his notes identify only as A, B, and C. Unfortunately, on the night that Dr Rees is murdered those are very troubled characters, but more unfortunately for Inspector Flint at least one unidentified visitor was allowed in to see Rees by his housekeeper as well. No matter how the housekeeper might have listened at the door of the doctor’s consulting room she would not hear more than enough to confuse the investigation.

Given that characters admit to going backwards and forwards, and that checking of alibis throws doubts on both their locations and their honesty, we might be in for a nineteen-thirties police procedural. That, though, would be nothing, and Inspector Flint knows it. He has therefore, developed a relationship with the former stage conjuror Joseph Spector. Fans of Dickson Carr’s rival Clayton Rawson will remember that he gave us only a few accounts of magician The Greater Merlini, and welcome another expert on the arts of miss-direction and prestidigitation that is Joseph Spector. Tom Mead puts Spector directly in the apostolic line when he titles a chapter ‘A Brief Disquisition on the Locked-Room Problem’, recalling the lecture by Doctor Gideon Fell quoted entire by Dickson Carr nearly a century ago. Even that, though, would not be enough to solve the problem. We are still only four-fifths of the way through the book when Flint realises ‘because every invited guest was searched by the police this looked to be an impossible crime, when in fact it was everything but.’ The point being how could an uninvited guest pass themself off? (At what they were uninvited I will leave unidentified here). That is another example of Spector using his individual skills to explain to Flint. This ‘impossible crime’, though, is not the murder of Anselm Rees, but another which must be solved before opening the bigger picture.

Joseph Spector will eventually confront and reveal the murderer in the most established way: the gathering of the suspects. And as he explains how the murder was done, Tom Mead drops footnotes pointing out where the evidence could be found (indeed, should have been noted by we readers) in the most traditional way of Ellery Queen’s Challenge to the Reader. Some of the medical detail would not be there in 1936, but Tom Mead’s reworking of Freud’s "Aus der Geschichte einer kindlichen Neurose" as “Der Schlangenmann”, and his invention of a continental back-story to it, which ebbs and flows in significance, is another clever touch. For fans of Golden Age crime one more pleasure will be that this is not an overlong book: at about 250 pages this could be a green Penguin that one bought at a railway station bookstall on the way to one’s WRNS or RAF posting in 1942.



I will look forward to Tom Mead giving us us many more examples of Joseph Spector’s crime-solving abilities. Death and the Conjuror is a great start.


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