Why I Write Mysteries: Death and the Conjuror by Tom Mead

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Death and the Conjuror

By Tom Mead

There’s a school of thought which states that old-fashioned fair-play murder mysteries (I’m talking specifically about whodunits and variants thereof) fulfil an essential need in human nature. That tales in which a mystery is solved, a criminal is brought to justice, and order is restored, provide a sense of catharsis. They offer an escape from the disorder we encounter in our own lives.

One proponent of this theory was W.H. Auden, who wrote an influential essay called “The Guilty Vicarage.” In it he explores the subject of mystery fiction in considerable depth. According to Auden, the solution of the mystery represents a return to a “state of grace” akin to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. With the guilty one identified, suspicion is lifted; we are innocent once again. As such, murder mysteries are a necessary distraction from the murkiness and uncertainty of the real world.

This is an interesting idea, parts of which I would like to agree with. But it also presents a paradox. You see, the stories I write are locked-room mysteries, or “impossible crimes.” They are puzzles where not only the moral order but the very fabric of reality is disrupted: it is not merely a question of who could have committed the crime, but how the crime could possibly have been committed. As a subgenre, the locked-room mystery is steeped in the gothic and the uncanny, often with hints of the supernatural – but inevitably, logic and reason triumph in the end.

However, even when the seeming impossibility has been dismantled by the sleuth, the effect is not necessarily cathartic. If the author has done their job well, the reader has been outsmarted; a solution they could never have imagined has come to light. Their perception of the world has been changed for good. Things can never be quite the same again.

The best locked-room mystery stories are those which leave you giddy at the sheer scope of their invention. My personal favourite is John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, which I still find dazzling even though I know how it ends. The skill with which Carr conjures a diabolic atmosphere, as well as the effortlessness with which he threads his clues throughout the narrative, all there in plain sight. It’s brilliant.

So in effect, picking up a locked-room mystery is like accepting a challenge from the author – a challenge that you are hoping to lose. You are allowing yourself to be deceived, to have your perception of the world upended. It’s all part of the game.

When Golden Age-style whodunits fell out of favour in the aftermath of the Second World War, they were supplanted by more hardboiled and overtly “psychological” works. These works tended to sacrifice mystery for an in-depth portrait of the criminal mind. At that time, a frequently cited criticism of authors like Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr was that they failed to present a nuanced understanding of human psychology; that their characters were mere types whose behaviour reflected the vicissitudes of improbable and needlessly complex plots. An assessment, needless to say, with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

When I was younger and discovering the work of these great Golden Age authors for the first time, I was struck by the brilliant acuity with which they led me toward a certain solution, only for that solution to prove utterly wrong. They were master tricksters, and the ornate construction of their plots reflected a deep-seated understanding of human nature. They were able to second-guess their readers at every turn. Each novel was in effect a magic trick – one which the audience falls for every single time.

So when I began to write my own stories, my intention was to try to recapture the feeling which I myself enjoyed when reading a great murder mystery: that feeling of seeing a trick presented and then unravelled before my eyes. That is what I enjoy most about the locked-room subgenre, and it’s a feeling I am hoping to evoke in readers of my book Death and the Conjuror.

But above all, Death and the Conjuror is my tribute to the writers and the books that I love. Books which have fallen in and out of favour over the decades, but which seem to be enjoying a full-fledged (and long overdue) renaissance. I wanted to try and evoke some of the ambiance and style of Christie, Carr, or Ellery Queen, and to engage readers in a psychological game. Carr himself called it a game: “The Grandest Game in the World,” in fact. It took me a while to realise it, but that is the real reason I write mysteries: for the game.

I love to set readers a challenge, because it’s an experience which I value greatly as a reader myself. But in order to challenge the reader, the writer needs to understand the reader. That understanding is what makes the Golden Age authors great: they knew how to play on the gaps in our perception, to lead us artfully up the garden path.

I’ve been reading Golden Age and locked-room mysteries for years, and loving them just as long. As such, Death and the Conjuror is a passion project – it’s my effort to introduce new readers to a subgenre which is often uncelebrated and underrated. And if I’m able to create a few new converts, then I’ll be a happy man indeed. 

(c) Tom Mead

About Death and the Conjuror:

Death and the Conjuror

An enthralling locked-room murder mystery inspired by crime fiction of the Golden Age, Death and the Conjuror is the critically acclaimed debut novel by Tom Mead. Selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s Mysteries of the Year.

1936, London. A celebrity psychiatrist is discovered dead in his locked study. There seems to be no way a killer could have escaped unseen. There are no clues, no witnesses, and no evidence of the murder weapon. Stumped by the confounding scene, Inspector Flint, the Scotland Yard detective on the case, calls on retired stage magician turned part-time sleuth Joseph Spector.

Spector has a knack for explaining the inexplicable, but even he finds that there is more to this mystery than meets the eye. As he and the Inspector interview the colourful cast of suspects, they uncover no shortage of dark secrets… or motives for murder. And when a second murder occurs, this time in an impenetrable elevator, they realise the crime wave will become even more deadly unless they can catch the culprit soon.

‘A sharply drawn period piece with memorable characters.’ New York Times
‘A novel to intrigue and delight.’ John Connolly
‘A beautiful, dark, atmospheric story.’ Victoria Dowd

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Tom Mead is a UK crime fiction author specialising in locked-room mysteries. He is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers’ Organization. His debut novel is DEATH AND THE CONJUROR, featuring magician-detective Joseph Spector.

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