Jim Noy has been a major part of the Golden Age mystery community for years now. He made a name for himself first by starting his excellent blog over at The Invisible Event where he reviews and discusses detective fiction — he was, in fact, the second blogger I ever discovered in the genre and influenced a lot of my early reading. Later, Jim started a talk show podcast called In GAD We Trust, in which he invited other prominent bloggers and writers to discuss specialized topics on the genre.
It was clear from his blog and podcast that he had an especial interest in impossible crimes and locked-room mysteries. That’s why it might have come as a surprise to very few that Jim finished marking his territory in the world of detective fiction with the publication of a locked-room mystery novel, The Red Death Murders.
The Red Death Murders takes the world of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and transforms it into a fully-fledged, authentically plotted puzzle mystery “leaving clues openly in the tradition of Agatha Christie”.
In a world ravaged by the Red Death, a plague that touches even the sanest men and serenest animals with a rabid insanity, Prince Prospero has in the absence of his father opened his castle walls to all of the rich and influential in the lands. Many men and women came hoping that Prince Prospero had a plan for surviving the Red Death, and left in disgust when they realized that the Prince was merely interested in throwing extravagant and debaucherous parties for the pompous and pandered. Over time, the revelries began to die down. Servants, dissatisfied at their work, would sneak out of the castle at the night and brave the wild world touched by the Red Death, and their masters would leave behind them with nobody to tend after them.
After two-hundred-or-so days, only nine people remained — the prince, his bodyguard, six guests, and a single servant — so that when a seemingly impossible but fortunately failed attempt was made on Prince Prospero’s life by a man dressed in a mask representing the Red Death itself, the entire castle is shook. But none more so than when they find one of their guests, with his wrists slashed, evidently murdered, in a primitive bathroom sealed from the inside by a piece of twine wrapped around two nails in the door and doorframe.
Spurred into action by the realization that there’s more to worry about than the Red Death, the thirteen year old Thomas aids respected Sir William and his brother Sir Marcus on their investigation into the true nature of the murders committed and assure everyone else can leave the castle safely…
The Red Death Murders is a tightly-plotted impossible crime novel, but it’d be doing the novel a disservice to say that the impossibilities are the core focus of this book. There are two-and-two-halves more impossibilities throughout the book — another locked-room murder, a man dead by poison even though he drank from the same cup everyone else partook of safely, a man stabbed semi-impossibly when everyone’s locations were accounted for and nobody was near the victim (except for two people who are not reliably accounted for), and the semi-impossible penetration of the Red Death into the castle to infect someone — and these impossibilities are far from handled casually. However, by the end of the book, when you’re given the Challenge to the Reader that assures you you have all of the same clues used by the detective, whomsoever it may be, to solve the crime, half of the actual impossibilities are already neatly resolved.
No, the impossibilities are not all that make up The Red Death Murders. The book is also packed full of delicious drama, world-building, history, politics, characters, routines, and habits — details compounded upon details that not only fill out the world and the people occupying it, ingratiating you to the fully-realized characters within and keeping you invested with their comings and goings, but also form a complex mural of crime and punishment in which no detail is uninteresting or wasted, even if the payoff only comes in the form of a false solution. A lesson in paying attention and accounting for absolutely everything, The Red Death Murders transcends Chekhov’s Gun — it’s a veritable Armory of Chekhov, with barrels of guns and tips of blades tapering together and downwards to a fine point.
And what a fine fine point it is, too! An utterly complex, compelling scheme that makes entire sense the entire way through, and yet also manages to baffle you with false explanations, red herrings, and expert misdirection, and Agatha Christie-esque dodges galore! This is also one of the few locked-room mysteries where I was genuinely impressed by the why as well as the how. Greatly clever in every single respect.
As for the resolutions to the impossibilities themselves, the problems are numerous, so no, not every single explanation for every single crime is an utter genre-bending classic. Plus, honestly, there are a few instances in which I found the false solutions more compelling than the actual, absolute truth. But where these crimes succeed, they succeed! The murder in the privy comes up with what is to my knowledge a wholly original explanation to the problem of a murder in a locked-and-sealed room, and the cup poisoning is also entirely original — I will confess that while they stop barely shy of having that forehead-slapping, book-dropping, world-shaking effect me, I can still be awe of the utter ingenuity here that actually shakes me in my typical resistance to very physical tricks like these. The impossible disappearance is a very simple but satisfying alibi-adjacent trick employed to create a neat impossible effect, and I do love it when alibi tricks are employed in impossible crimes so I particularly liked the impossible disappearance.
Are there any hang-ups with the novel? Yeah, the descriptions are beautifully written and the landscape richly and clearly developed, but I had trouble keeping the castle spatially clear in my head, and I feel like I would’ve benefited from a map or floorplan.
This is also a personal gripe, but there are two elements I feel could’ve been further utilized in the murder plot. The multi-colored rooms in the dungeons could’ve absolutely been utilized further in the creation of an impossible disappearance and I was a little disappointed by the lack of tricks involving light and color — a somewhat under-explored area of trickery.
The Red Death itself in particular I also would’ve loved to see play a more central role in a murder. While reading The Red Death Murders, I was struck with comparisons to Masahiro Imamura’s Death Among the Undead, which utilizes zombies to construct impossible crimes. Given that the Red Death itself is a plague that turns people into mindless, shambling, rabid monsters intent on spreading itself to new hosts through blood-contact, it wasn’t hard to make the connection between that and zombies. In a lot of ways, The Red Death Murders is incredibly shin-honkaku in other respects, too, with its heavy focus on complex, unconventional architecture, so I was expecting there to be some intimate involvement of the plague in the mechanical commission of the murders. I was a little sad that the rules the plague abided by didn’t play too much into the murder plot, but then again there’s already so much happening so I can’t expect everything and anything to be used to commit a locked-room murder!
The Red Death Murders is a tour de force that hardly feels like a first-time writer making his debut. Expertly and tightly plotted, The Red Death Murders is not only a compelling locked-room mystery novel, but a compelling dark fantasy/horror novel that uses all of its worldbuilding to the fullest to inform and enhance a brilliant murder plot. If there are any smudges, they’re very minor and only caused by my getting carried away with impossible expectations. Combined with two very unique explanations to two different impossible crimes, that makes Jim Noy’s The Read Death Murders a necessary read for any locked-room mystery fan.