Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Tom Mead : Death and the Conjuror - The Mysterious Press, New York, 2022




Tom Mead is a dear friend. We've known each other for a few years.

Friendship born on Facebook, but not like many others: deepened and marked by readings and discussions.

He remembered me because years ago in an anthology by John Pugmire & Brian Supkin a story of mine with a classic locked room had appeared, he told me that he really liked it and asked me if I had written anything else. I told him that I had written many short stories, some published in the past and many unpublished, and that I had also written a novel, which probably would never be published, with two locked rooms and an impossible crime. From there, various discussions on concomitant areas, and reflections on French authors of the past, too, Steeman for example (of which he told me he had in mind to have novels published in his translation from French). Then the request to read my stories (some I had even translated into acceptable English) and the offer to translate some of his choice. Obviously he flattered me, also because he was the only person who could do it, as he used to do his best in Italian: as we know, Igor Longo, a splendid translator and once friend, disappeared from the scene about two years ago, and we don't know when and if he will come back.

Moreover, one of the three stories that he translated better than I had done was then published in Arthur Vidro's prestigious American magazine, and for this I thanked him for the translation and Mike Grost for the feed.

Tom told me about two years ago that he had written a novel, and among others had made Gabriele Crescenzi read it. Then he happily told me that he had sent the novel to Otto Penzler, who had appreciated it so much that he wanted to publish it. However, it must be said that Tom is not a completely new name: he has already published some stories both in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, moreover focused on the adventures of the same character, who acts in the novel, i.e. Joseph Spector, and he has already made himself known for his propensity to invent impossible crimes.

That of impossible crimes and locked rooms is in a certain way "a mental distortion": it is not only a very particular and very elitist subspecies of mysteries, but also in my view, "a mental distortion", and I say it without only as a reader and critic but above all as a writer of locked rooms and impossible crimes. In other words, whoever writes inventing this kind of misdeeds is so in love with and even obsessed with the crime that takes place in impossible circumstances, that not only cannot he find satisfaction in inventing a story based on a common crime, but he is also linked to the willingness to continually outdo themselves, always inventing new original tricks.

About this, it is good opening a parenthesis: as someone said, after the death of the great writers of Locked Rooms, the historical ones, I mean Carr, Rawson, Crispin, Talbot, Sladek, Commings, Hoch, Wynne and some others, writers who invented tricks there are very few originals, and normally the novels that are written are almost always real or ideal tributes to these great writers of the past.

Tom's novel is too. 


The action takes place in the past, in 1936.

Benjamin Teasel is the impresario of a theatrical show that promises to be very successful: Miss Death. The protagonist is Della Cookson, an established actress. Joseph Spector, a magician, was called to cure the effects. The show is very successful. Teasel organizes a party at his house and invites everyone and also a psychoanalyst recently residing in the city, who escaped from Germany, Dr. Anselm Rees and his daughter. Rees, however, declines the invitation. Among others, he has an appointment with a mysterious visitor who has urgently asked to be able to see him.

He arrives, with a raised coat and a wide-brimmed hat that prevents recognition, and heads towards Rees' study. After a certain time, he always goes out the front door. They hear the doctor answering the phone. After a while the housekeeper goes to see if the doctor needs anything, but she gets no answer; same thing with daughter Lydia, also a doctor. Furthermore, the room is locked from the inside. They shout but receive no answer. They therefore decide to open the room from the outside with the trick of pushing the key, making it fall and then recovering it with a newspaper from under the door. What they find is the horrific vision of Dr. Rees killed with a deep gash at the base of his neck, so much so that he nearly decapitated him. They try the window, but find it blocked, so they reserve their energies to find the killer who must necessarily be there; and as it happens there is a wooden chest deep enough to receive a body.'s empty. Yet the visitor couldn't have been, because then they heard the victim talking on the phone. Or, if he did it, he must have come up with some trick. The fact is that the two women, shaken and on the verge of shock, go to find a bottle of liquor to calm down and then call the police.

It's raining outside. And that will play a part in determining from the fingerprints what has been done and what hasn't.

Enter Inspector Flint and his friend the wizard Joseph Spector. And from here begins an investigation that first of all tends to learn more about the figure of Rees, and his patients. It soon becomes known that the cases on which he had poured his energies were three: Floyd Stenhouse, international violinist, who had recurring horrible dreams (Patient A); actress Della Cookson, who suffers from kleptomania (Patient B); Claude Weaver, writer, suffering from memory lapses (Patient C). And all three will have an impact on the story in one way or another.

If the investigators have to carry out investigations in order to find evidence to stop the murderer, they soon find themselves facing an ancillary problem: someone, on the night of the party at the Teasel house, stole without us being able to understand how he did it, the canvas "El Nacimiento" by Manolito Espina, the mad painter. Does Della have anything to do with the theft? And as it happens, Della Cookson was also present at the crime scene. But she arrived after the mysterious visitor had left.

They learn that the phone call they had heard Dr. Rees answer was from the Steenhouse home.

At this point a close investigation begins, which focuses on other personalities who appear and disappear from time to time: Der Schangenmann (The Snake Man), Frieda Tanzer, the actor Edgar Simmons. Until a second crime occurs, also in impossible circumstances: a young man is found in an elevator, strangled, without anyone being seen approaching it, or opening it.

From here the action becomes faster, other things happen until during a meeting with the suspects, the killer is framed. And Spector will demonstrate how he managed to kill on both occasions.


The novel is gorgeous. And as I've said before, each Great Locked Room always has a great put-on. However, here the staging is not the fruit of the murderer's action alone to perpetrate the crime and get away with it, but also of the combined but not calculated action of interventions by other subjects that make it complex: the mysterious visitor, followed by a another that comes from the garden of the villa and follows it; the presence of Della Cookson; the room that seems closed from the inside, door and windows, only that the windows previously closed from the inside are opened and barred from the outside and then closed again from the inside; the presence of an imposter who brings about a particular situation in the story, which will have consequences upon the act of murder.

However, few know that the genesis of the title was not immediate: in fact, the first draft had a different one: Occam's Razor. Now it is clear that if this first title had been chosen, the reason would have been twofold: first of all, the razor is the weapon used for the first crime, the one at the basis of the novel; and as it is commonly known "Occam's Razor" is also a methodological procedure which consists in giving a problem its simplest solution chosen among some equally valid ones. But Tom Mead preferred to change it to Death and the Conjuror, because as he revealed to me "Otto Penzler didn't like the original title, which is why I changed it".

It is divided into three parts: The Thief’s Tale, The Liar’s Tale, The Impostor Tale and each of the three parts contains a sentence dedicated to a great writer of the past. To signify how much the novel is conceived, as happened many other times, as a tribute to the greats of the past, and especially to John Dickson Carr. And it is no coincidence that the inevitable dedication to his parents is followed by that to Carr. Tom, however, does not look at Carr only as a tutelary deity of the sub-genre, but also when he refers to it directly in history: in fact, not only does the appearance of a mysterious visitor hidden by a coat and a hat that hides him take us back to The Hollow Man, where there is a mysterious visitor who visits Doctor Grimaud, who will be killed; but even the references to Vampires (The Vampire Trap) are not ends in themselves, but always tend to connect to Carr's most significant work. As if that weren't enough, in the second part, there is also a disquisition of the Locked Room, as happens in The Hollow Man.

When someone writes a work of the Locked Room genre, he usually tends not only to put in everything impossible he is capable of, but also sometimes to insert a characterizing element, which is, par excellence, the Locked Room-Lecture. And when this happens, it means that the novel is of special importance to the author. However, in Tom's case, the disquisition is approached differently than in Carr's novel and generally in the novels containing it. In fact, in Death and the Conjuror, we do not attend a scholarly conference such as that of Doctor Fell who rattles off all the cases up to that moment, but the disquisition is addressed by adapting it strictly to the problems of the case in progress, eliminating everything that cannot adapt and instead dwelling only on what is the matter of the case.

In the third part, however, before the solution, here is another tribute to another Great of the genre: to Ellery Queen. Because, even if briefly, Tom stops and launches a real Challenge to the Reader, which should anticipate Spector's solution, identifying the murderer. I identified it, before Spector did, and I must say that if it is always difficult, if you really apply yourself, and you are very careful when reading the novel, some assumption about who could be responsible, may not be exactly farfetched . The crucial point for identifying the culprit is the second impossible murder: because those who could not have been eliminated one by one, unlikely as it may seem, the murderer can only be one person, according to the famous aphorism of Conan Doyle : "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth". And since the second crime is the direct consequence of the first, it follows that there can be only one murderer.


But the tributes don't end there: in fact, the very figure of Joseph Spector is a tribute to another great writer of impossible stories: Clayton Rawson. In fact, Spector's specularity with Merlini is extremely evident. All the more so as Merlini in his stories often plays innocent conjuring tricks, pulls rabbits out of hats and proposes riddles of logic, so does Spector in the course of the novel, and in the end proposes with the rigged cage of the canary, a metaphor that can adapt to the novel: that is, if one wants, reality can be changed at will with a trick. Cage, which, depending on how it is turned, causes the bird to be now there and now not, because it is made up with mirrors, and in this it is once again reminiscent of Carr: one of Colonel March's short stories, The New Invisible Man in Department of Queer Complaints.

Anyone who might think that it is only a deductive novel, however, would be misled: the deductive part is predominant, but the psychological one also has its importance: e.g. understanding how "El Nacimiento" was stolen and who could have done it and for what reason, is not a trivial matter; so also what Marcus Bowman, Lydia Rees' boyfriend, was hiding, which concerned another person; and finally the reasoning to explain Weaver's conduct, and his memory holes, which will then be the basis on which Spector will base his final reasoning and explain the crimes.

The novel must be read well and therefore takes his time; however it must be said that beyond the time needed to read it well and dwell on the various steps of the cognitive ladder that leads to the solution, the novel has different speeds: the first and second parts are generally slow and the novel progresses with difficulty, even because the disquisition on the Locked Room and the disquisitions on the disorders of Doctor Rees' patients and that on The Snakeman, must be faced with a firm and measured step; the third part, especially starting from The Vampire Trap, instead becomes nothing short of frenetic, and the surprises follow one another at a rapid pace, outlining a solution that gives us a glimpse of a very different reality from what we thought was the one thought at first.


Pietro De Palma