By: Tom Mead
Release Date: July 12, 2022
Publisher: Mysterious Press
Series: Joseph Spector (#1)
Tom Mead’s Death and the Conjuror isn’t the first story in which the character Joseph Spector has appeared, formerly appearing in several of the author’s short stories. Here, however, his prowess and intellect shine in a novel-length work, the first in a series.
The tale takes place in 1930s London, where well-known psychiatrist Anselm Rees is found deceased, locked away in his study with no way for his killer to have escaped, let alone escaped unseen. Scotland Yard Inspector George Flint is stumped and soon finds himself calling former magician Joseph Spector in to assist with his expertise.
Our victim is an interesting man, a psychiatrist with new clients in a new country, all of whom he refers to as patients A, B, and C. His death is quite a mystery as well, seemingly impossible. A small but highly interesting group of individuals find themselves suspects, including Dr. Rees’s daughter.
Lidia Rees is also a psychiatrist, one nearly finished with her studies and ready to see patients of her own. The author presents the quick-witted woman as a debutant, one of high society and of an older, noble sort of lineage. However, this clashes with the reality of the matter—Lidia comes from a now-moneyed background, but she is famed only for her father’s successes. Moreover, why exactly she is with her rake of a boyfriend is something nearly every character questions and never receives and answer. The relationship is baffling to the point of characterization-breaking.
Speaking of characterization, Joseph Spector and George Flint both leave just a bit to be desired. While Flint is clearly framed as a caring though bumbling officer, he comes across as nothing short of imbecilic when next to Spector, something that is unintentional. This brings us to the greatest flaw of the book. Though having a host of objectively interesting characters, few of them are sufficiently fleshed out. Certain characters blur together, and even our most clever magician has so little background that remains a bit of an unknown enigma, Spector himself fading into a sea of unremarkable characters.
Despite Spector’s expertise and quick wit, there are unanswered questions, ones which a seasoned reader of mysteries may find themselves initially wondering are tied to identifying the true killer. Why did Anselm Rees immigrate to London? Why did his daughter go with him when she seemingly was ready to open her own practice? These, and others, are never fully explained. Food for future novels in the series? Perhaps. Only time will have an answer.
Locked room mysteries are timeless, and Death and the Conjuror pays homage to its predecessors, mentioning several mystery writers of the time in which the story is set by name. This, however, remains a knowing nod, never becoming cloying or fourth-wall-breaking as can sometimes happen. At the same time, it is a nod only, never shaping itself into something plot-relevant or of clear importance.
A fascinating addition to the ending of the tale is the use of footnotes. When Spector finally explains the mystery, the author uses footnotes to direct readers to the appropriate pages where tiny details and damning evidence are mentioned. On the one hand, this is unique and helps readers confirm for themselves that these things actually occurred and details related earlier in the tale. On the other hand, it appears strange. Either the author doesn’t trust his readers to have the appropriate Aha! moment necessary to find the ending believable, or he doesn’t trust his own skills of building a seemingly impossible conundrum.
The locked room mystery aspect is quite intriguing here. Enough time is spent with Dr. Rees at the start of the book that readers will find themselves partial to the character. And most of all, the mystery itself is solved in a most clever fashion. Readers looking for a palate cleanser or an Agatha-Christie-style mystery may find an enjoyable read here, but a myriad of smaller issues means Death and the Conjurer by Tom Mead leaves a bit to be desired.