Death and the Conjuror (2022) by Tom Mead

(*disclaimer: a free advance copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher through the NetGalley service)

Tom Mead is an author who, for anyone reading this blog, likely needs no introduction. A many-time publisher of successful impossible crime short fiction published heavily in crime fiction anthologies and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, likely best known for his hard-boiled story “Heatwave”, Tom hadn’t produced his first novel-length outing until Death and the Conjuror, published by Otto Penzler and Mysterious Press.

Anselm Rees, world-renowned Italian psychiatrist, has led a stable life in England, keeping a modest practice of only three patients since his immigration with his daughter Lidia. A torrent of unexpected visitors culminates in the throat-slashing of Rees in his study, which had been locked and sealed from the inside so that entrance and escape is wholly impossible. When one of the suspects is also accused of (under impossible circumstances) stealing a rare painting from a house party, Detective Inspector Flint is forced to consult magician and master of illusions Joseph Spector to help elucidate the problem. Together, Flint and Spector interview the late Rees’s family, employees, and patients in order to locate whodunit.

Horizontally, laterally, frontwards, and backwards, Tom Mead’s breakout novel is the impossible crime fan’s impossible crime, having everything a reader of locked-room mysteries will love from a locked-room mystery novel, and safely having nothing he may not. In fact, Death and the Conjuror is ultimately a bisection between your average John Dickson Carr impossible crime and Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat in all of the best (and not-so-best) ways.

Tom Mead’s writing style is one of the first things I wanted to compliment when writing this post. Many Golden Age greats have written characters with distinct identities and personalities who nonetheless get lost in the same voice of high-class sophistication that permeates much of the prose (even those authors well-known as stylists as well as plotters). Oftentimes even authors who weren’t explicitly trying to be literary felt like they were trying to flout their intellectualism in place of style. Fortunately, Tom manages to blend period-appropriate language with a voice obviously developed with modern sensibilities, creating a novel that, though no less convincing as a 19xx mystery story, is majorly more readable and palpable than the average mystery tale of the period, and boasts clearly defined characters and voices.

As a mystery novel holistically, Death and the Conjuror is fantastically realized. Like any Golden Age tale of ratiocination, Death and the Conjuror brings you from clue to clue, building up a picture of murder over time that only compounds into something more complex, no matter how much the detective wishes it would get better. There are many interesting set-pieces, clever clues, and neat logic throughout, and the ways circumstance unites the characters in the plot-at-large are always interesting and fluid. Apparently there are many reasons for the troubled to visit their psychiatrist in the middle of the night!

In spite of the focus on a psychiatrist and his patients, the book also doesn’t delve too much into overreaching psychology as a clue. It dips its toe in places, but it’s always interesting and never anything it expects the reader to guess based on idealized archetypes of demographic psychology. I will say, however, that despite the novel’s theming around psychiatry, this particular element of the story felt wasted in establishing the killer’s motive, which was ultimately pretty basic in light of all the circumstance surrounding it. Moreover, the way the detective divined the motive is fair, as it demands a few assumptions and guesses that we as readers will or can naturally make, but isn’t as credible from a perspective within the series. (ROT13 for anyone who has read the story: Vg qrznaqf gur nffhzcgvba gung “Gur Fanxr Zna” vf n fvtavsvpnag cneg bs gur fgbel, naq gur nffhzcgvba gung gur fpbcr bs Gur Fanxr Zna’f vaibyirzrag jvgu gur cybg vf erfgevpgrq gb gur cevapvcyr punenpgref bs gur abiry. Gur guvatf pbaarpgvat gur zheqre naq Gur Fanxr Zna fgbel ner cerggl grahbhf, yvxr gur cerggl trarevp angher bs gur jbhaq (n fyvg guebng) naq bar punenpgre orvat va nal cneg bs pbagvaragny Rhebcr ng n pregnva gvzr, naq sryg zber yvxr gur qrgrpgvir zrgn-grkghnyyl ernfbavat sebz sberfunqbjvat engure guna pyhrf.)

As a locked-room mystery, however, I was much less enamored with Death and the Conjuror than I’d hoped going in. There are three impossible crimes in this story, the two mentioned above as well as a murder in an elevator that never opened or moved during the course of the crime.

The principle murder of Dr. Anselm Rees reminds me of all of the things I don’t really like in those locked-room murders in the Rawson/Sladek/Talbot class, where I felt like the effect of an impossibility was valued over the effect of its explanation — like a magic trick. It was a series of tricks which, as part of a mystery novel, culminated in the illusion of a more grand-seeming murder plot than what we were really in store for, all as the cover for what I consider a pretty bland explanation, which relies on an old dodge I think many seasoned readers will probably clue into when the body is found (nsgre gurl, gurl arire gbhpu gur xrl…). While I thought that the individual revelations that led to the explanation were interesting and engaging, and the denouement perfectly satisfying, the whole thing was missing that something that many of my favorite impossible crimes have, that central deception around which everything else revolves in one way or another, that one detail that finally fits perfectly into place after nagging at you for 200 pages — the oomph, or the chutzpah, or whatever it is you want to call it.

The two secondary impossible crimes are fairly minor affairs. The theft of the painting is resolved partway through the story, and the explanation might be one of the first few ideas you have. The question of “where is the painting now?” is much more interesting, and handled very well. The murder in the elevator is a pretty flimsily-established impossibility, relying on the testimony of a single witness, and the explanation for why he’s trustworthy isn’t exactly convincing. It has a neat piece of sleight-of-hand in the set-up, but the actual commission of the murder relies on what I guarantee will be the first thought to occur to most people (when I talk to my uninitiated friends about murders in elevators, this is the first explanation they always jump to before anything else). It’s also diluted by being incredibly mechanical.

There is, near the end, a dissertation on the nature of locked-room mysteries. I’m not quite sure how to qualify it, but it is a very good “locked-room lecture” that some may think flirts a bit dangerously with spoilers…

That all said, my verdict on Death and the Conjuror is that it is a fantastic crime novel… which has a locked-room mystery, and not, unfortunately, a fantastic locked-room mystery. Outside of the locked-room mystery and the killer’s motive, nearly everything here works, and there are plenty of clever, devious revelations throughout that do a fantastic job of juggling suspicions between its core players. Many unique moving puzzle-pieces fill out the plot of this novel, from the psychological afflictions of the victims’ patients, to the identity of the masked man who visited him, to the history of the Rees family, and the inner workings of a theater group… As a crime novel, you can do little better to fill out as intriguing a tale of murder and detection as this.