It was about three or four years ago when I first sat down to start writing the story that would eventually become Death and the Conjuror. Since then – and to my continued delight – the general interest in “vintage” Golden Age-style murder mysteries seems to have grown exponentially.
Authors such as Elly Griffiths, Anthony Horowitz and Martin Edwards have contributed a great deal towards this renaissance, not to mention the spate of marvellous new translations of classic Japanese mysteries by the likes of Seishi Yokomizo, Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji. Stylish reissues of genre legend (and my personal favourite author) John Dickson Carr have also helped to generate interest in new locked-room mysteries, as well as the popularity of the mainstream show Death in Paradise. Likewise, Martin’s sterling work on the British Library Crime Classics series has also contributed significantly to the genre’s resurgence, plus Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics on the other side of the pond. So from my perspective, the timing could not have been better for Death and the Conjuror.
It’s a locked-room mystery set in 1930s London. My main character, Joseph Spector, is a retired music-hall conjuror with a taste for the macabre and a knack for explaining the seemingly inexplicable. As such, he’s the perfect foil for an impossible crime story where how the murder was committed is just as mysterious as who committed it. I like to think that he sits somewhere in the tradition of distinguished amateur sleuths like John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Edward D. Hoch’s Simon Ark.
The reason I mention Simon Ark, a remarkable series character who solves earthly crimes while claiming to be a 2000-year-old Coptic priest, is that there is certainly something a little uncanny about Spector, too. He has a Machiavellian element to his character, and it can be difficult to tell whose side he is really on. His house in Putney is crammed with objets d’arcana, Barnumesque humbugs, occult relics and the like – not to mention many books of magic. But in spite of all these trappings, his key trait is his indefatigable logic.
For me, the character of Joseph Spector and the world of Death and the Conjuror are the culmination of all the influences mentioned above. I wanted to create a complex puzzle plot crammed with twists, suspects, uncertainties and illusions. I’ve written about Spector a number of times before in short stories – including a few which have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and the like – and I plan to continue doing so. But the time definitely felt right to make the leap to long-form fiction.
My main reason for writing Death and the Conjuror was to try and capture the sensation I get when I read classic mystery fiction: that delightful feeling of retrospective illumination when the final piece of the puzzle falls neatly into place and the concatenation of impossibilities is unravelled. The “why didn’t I think of that?” moment that comes when you realise the clue has been in front of your eyes the whole time. If I can give readers even a fraction of my own enjoyment of that particularly challenging and compelling species of plot, I’ll be a happy man indeed.