We love mystery!

Magic and Mysteries (part 1)

Mysteries set in magical worlds or with mystical elements are popular and in today’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss why.


The Prestige (1995) Christopher Priest

The Rivers of London (2011) Ben Aaronovitch

“The Eyes Have It” (1964) Randall Garrett

The Life of Crime (2022) Martin Edwards

The Magician’s Secret (2015) Carolyn Keene

Now You See Me (2013) Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate Films

Clayton Rawson

Jonathan Creek (1997-2016) BBC

The Librarian of Crooked Lane (2022) C.J. Archer

Magic, Inc. (1940) Robert A. Heinlein

Murder in Devil’s Cove (2020) Melissa Bourbon

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. How are you today?
SarahI’m great, thank you. How about you?
BrookYeah, I’m great too and I’m really looking forward to this conversation today.
SarahYeah, so we’re going to talk about magic and mysteries and when I say that, Brook what kind of book pops into your mind? Is it a cozy mystery featuring witches or talking animals. Do you think about a book where the sleuth uses magic in the investigation? Or do you think of mysteries featuring stage magic? Broadly I would consider all of these to be magical mysteries and like so many mystery subgenres that we’ve already spoken about, there’s a real spectrum both in the type of magic, the mystery itself or the type of mystery and also I think the popularity. If you look on Amazon, witch and wizard mysteries have their own category. Which suggests to me that they’re that they’re quite popular but judging by the covers. They’re mostly cozy mysteries.
SarahBut not all mysteries with magic are lighter. There are also PIs, historical mystery, alternative history featuring magic, and I hope we get a chance to talk about each of those today. In terms of the history of the subgenre I’m not sure that we would be classifying this as a mystery necessarily but Shakespeare’s Macbeth opens with witches and does feature murder through much of history witches were evil and scary and were code for women who were different. Fairy tales feature good and bad witches though. Most of them are bad Al Frank bombs the wizard of oz published in 1900 also features good and bad witches looking at the history of mystery and magic. In the golden age of mystery there were several examples of mysteries featuring stage magic since then other mysteries featuring magic have been popular so when Shakespeare was writing his plays I’m sure that his audiences would never have dreamt that witches were the heroic crime solvers in today’s cozy mysteries. So, Brook what type of mysteries featuring magic have you read?
BrookI think that the majority of the ones that I have read and certainly the ones that I revisited or read to get ready for our conversation today are more on the stage magic end of things I really like those characters, especially if you look at some of the historical mysteries along those lines. One of the first things that came to my mind when we talked about reviewing this subgenre was The Prestige and um, that’s a movie that I really enjoyed I think it’s 2007, 2006 somewhere on that era and I saw it you know. Really early when it first came out and I just loved it and I thought well this was a perfect opportunity to revisit that and read the book. So I have started it I haven’t completed it but it’s written really well and it’s um, it’s telling the story of these two rival stage magicians.
BrookAnd it’s told as um as I know you and I both love an epistolary novel with these old journals from the two rival magicians. But I will say that I was surprised because when I picked it up, I’m thinking that it’s a psychological thriller that’s kind of how I would code that movie. But it’s actually classified as fantasy and I’m thinking that that’s probably because there is an element of um, like actual conjuring without giving too much away. And so I’m going to say it’s a fantastical thriller.
SarahThat’s a good point because I think a lot of the um mysteries that kind of fall under the magic umbrella, really there’s ah, a big overlap with fantasy. And some are Urban Fantasy, magic is just there’s magic but there’s also other supernatural creatures. And you know I think we could probably do a whole other episode talking about kind of that paranormal mystery that features less of the magic and more of those other creatures. But um, an example of the kind of urban fantasy would be Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. So this is a police procedural. Grant has just finished his probation with London’s Metropolitan Police and he actually becomes an apprentice wizard after he joins a small unit that deals with crimes that have supernatural elements. And so the world is recognizable as ours, you know everything with the exception of these these supernatural creatures and and the magical elements, we would see as as being London. But yeah, there’s there’s magic, there’s ghosts and there are this whole cast of other creatures that are part of this world. I haven’t finished the first book yet. But I’m really really enjoying it and there’s several in this series. Um, and I think also some graphic novels as well. Which is something again that suggests to me that kind of overlap with fantasy because we don’t see a lot of that supplementary material in kind of what we would consider um the mystery genre.
BrookYeah, yeah, that’s a really a good point and a good way to think of it is that overlap with fantasy because there has to be right because we’re talking about things that are um, imaginary and and not in the real world. But that sounds like a great series. I love it when we can have the magical world overlaid on the the real life world Because I love the the feeling of realism that that gives it even though we know that it is um, just fiction.
BrookAnd that actually brings up a fun quote that I took from the prestige and so this is from the journal of Alfred Borden who if you’ll recall in the movies played by Christian Bale and it says “The prestigitator,” who is the magician, “And the audience enter into what I term the pact of acquiescent sorcery.” And I just loved that because it brings up the fact that in any of these books and even in those fantasy novels as readers we’re entering into a pact with that author to be like “okay, we’re going to suspend our disbelief and we’re going to, um, you know jump in and enjoy this world this fictional world with these creatures that don’t necessarily exist in the real world and just have fun with it.” And um, you know that’s kind of what we do at a magic show too.
SarahYou’re totally right about kind of entering this agreement with the author that there are going to be some rules around the world that they’ve created and you you know might not get an explanation of how everything in the world works. But you’re expecting for it to behave once it’s behaved one way you’re expecting it to continue to behave that way right. um so I think yeah I think that’s that’s really a good point. To prepare for our conversation I did read a few books and short stories that I I probably wouldn’t have ordinarily picked up. I read the short story “The Eyes Have It” by Randall Garrett and so I discovered him, actually he’s mentioned in Martin Edwards’ book The Life of Crime. And Garrett’s detective is Lord Darcy who is an investigator for the duke of Normandy and this is an alternate history. So there’s 2 kind of things that are happening in this book. It’s an alternate history where it’s set in the 1960s um, but the world is very futile because Richard the Lionheart didn’t die in 1199 as he did in our world. So my English history doesn’t go back much further than say the War of the Roses which is about fifteenth century. Um, so there were probably some pieces that I didn’t really get um, but in addition to this being an alternate history, magic has been standardized in this world for hundreds of years and so you know it’s just part of the way that they that they live um and. Actually struggled a little bit to follow everything because there were because there were two elements that were so different from the world that that we live in.
SarahSo Aaronovitch’s book in the Peter Grant series The Rivers of London um, it was much easier for me to get into that because I recognized the rest of the world right? Um, but I think when you’ve got two things that are different for me at least it was. It was a little bit more challenging.
BrookYeah I agree. Both of those are really fun concepts the alternate history where this a great leader didn’t die and of course it’s a sliding door moment where everything changes. I love that but I can see how it would be hard to almost keep track of both of those different settings, basically.
SarahYeah I you know I as I was reading it I was I was almost thinking you know like I would love to read historical fiction set in Tudor times, which I’ve read a lot more of and I would probably um I would know the characters and understand the history a little bit more ah but where magic was a part of that world like I think that would be um, that would be really great and you know if you had some mystery in there too I think I would love that. But I think it was having it set in 1960 and so there were like things that you might recognize from present day or or recent history. Um, but then also this like very feudal societal structure. It was just a little bit too much um, too much for me.
BrookAnd I think that that also harkens back to the fact that we are primarily mystery genre readers because a fantasy reader. They do that kind of mind-bending stuff all the time in their books. So that might not have been so difficult for somebody who primarily reads fantasy.
SarahYeah, that’s that’s a really great point. Um, yeah, it maybe maybe wasn’t intended for readers like you and me.
BrookI was struck during my reading this week I read some other books where um as I say mostly stage magicians played into the story but I like the fact that a magician might be the good guy or he might be the bad guy. Many times he’s the sleuth in these stories and we have a lot of Golden Age. Ah examples of that that was ah a hot ah trend in the Golden Age. Um, ah probably because magic and seances and all those things were hot topics. But um, you know they can also be the bad guy and um.
SarahUm, ah.
BrookI read some Nancy Drew this week The Magician’s Secret is one of the Nancy Drew diaries from 2015 and in this story the magician pulls off this amazing illusion to make it appear as that the courthouse has disappeared. But in the process of creating this illusion it actually creates an opportunity for a thief to go in and steal some important documents and so clearly the Magician and his assistant become suspects because you know did they orchestrate this whole thing and I think we see that often in stories where and maybe even if the magician or the magic show isn’t the primary thrust of the of the story but that the illusion gives us a but that their illusions give a criminal an opportunity to commit a crime.
SarahI like that.
BrookI have an example of stage magicians as antiheroes. Um, it’s a movie from 2013 called Now You See Me. And this team of magicians. Ah pull off these bank heists and robberies very magical like miraculously magical and then the audience members sort of take part in their heists and they are actually rewarded with the money ah that they that they. Ah, they’re actually rewarded with the spoils of their thievery. Um, so this this Robin hood feel and then they just disappear and then you know they reappear to do another show in another city and the FBI is chasing them all over the planet and it’s it’s just really fun. But. There we have an example of anti-heroes as magicians.
SarahOh that’s ah, that’s a great example and I enjoyed um I enjoyed that that film and I think there’s a sequel as well and I um I enjoyed that too. There’s something. Yeah, it’s like a heist film.
SarahWhere I mean we’re always cheering for the crux right in in the heist films.
BrookAh, yes, it’s very. It’s a flip. Always they’re sort of the no Yes, it’s always that flip in a heist film and and you and I have said before we really love them.
SarahSo just on you know you were talking about um stage magic and definitely in the Golden Age that was popular, one of the authors that Martin Edwards mentions in his book is Clayton Rawson who wrote locked room mysteries in the 1930s featuring The Great Merlini. And so he’s a stage musician using his knowledge of stage magic to solve the crime I didn’t actually get a chance to read any of his books. But you know I think there’s such a great opportunity with stage magic to um, explore mystery. And I don’t know if you ever saw this Brook but there was a BBC series called Jonathan Creek and so Creek is the the character creates stage magic tricks for his friend who is a well-known magician in the series. And somehow he finds himself investigating murders throughout the series and kind of uses his knowledge of having developed these um these tricks to solve the crimes.
BrookFun. Yes magicians as yes, a magician as sleuth is really quite a great pair up because they know how to do um these things that look let me try this? yes. Ah, magician as a sleuth is actually a great pair up for all those reasons Sarah I think it makes a really fun character and obviously why um somebody like Rawlson would choose that and in write a series. Um.
BrookAnd to me the things that a stage magician does when you know we question it in some of the same ways that we question like a red herring in a mystery story like what’s real, what’s not is what’s true and what’s the lie. So, I think it just like it’s a really cool layer to have inside of a mystery story.
SarahSo I know I was talking about um the sort of alternate history featuring magic but I did read some historical fiction featuring magic. Um, and so you know, no ah sliding door timelines in this. Um, but CJ Archer actually has a couple of series where magic is a part of the world. Um, and so I’ve read one of the books from the Glass Library series which is set in the 1920s. And the and main characters solve mysteries, though the first one is a mystery without murder. Ah so that book you know felt like it was maybe a little bit slower but there’s definitely some magical elements and hints at um. Some bigger magical elements that I think are are explored in some of the subsequent books. Um, but I I enjoyed that I liked the you know I know 1920s historical mystery is very popular and so you know had a lot of the um.
SarahI know 1920 s historical mystery is very popular and it had a lot of the tropes that you would expect to see in that with that overlay of the magical elements and again this was magical realism because everything else in the world was. Something that you would recognize as as you know, having been part of ours.
BrookThat sounds fun I love that era of fiction so that would definitely be one for me to look into. So is the magic something that the sleuth uses to solve the case or is it just exist in the world?
SarahWell so there are people who have magic and people who don’t and the magic is actually magic that I haven’t um, encountered in any other kind of books that I’ve read where someone who might be a Magician has really just a very limited. Scope of what their magic can do. So their magic might be with respect to art so they can create beautiful paintings and kind of um, add some magic to those paintings. Um. But that’s the the extent of their magical powers. They’re not. You know there’s nothing else that they can conjure or or um perform so I thought that was also a really interesting Way. It’s kind of like you know, ah people having extra talent in in a particular area of of their lives.
BrookUm, oh that sounds really fun. Almost like a trade. They’re like magical trade.
SarahIt’s been a while since I read that book, bbut I think there might be magical guilds. So if you are um, an artist. You would you know belong to the magical artist guild, if you will.
SarahSo another book that I read, Brook, is Magic, Inc. which I think was also known as The Devil Makes the Law so this was published in 1940 and written by Robert A. Heinlein. So magic is a part of the world. Um, and this story actually kind of similar to what I just mentioned um in CJ Archer’s book where um, you know people can use magic to there’s a character who creates clothing out of um or you know. Infuses clothing with magic. But in this so in this story, magic is part of the world and the story is really about like a scam or a shakedown with magicians kind of choosing one side or the other. It was interesting but I think there are some other um books in other subgenres of this magic umbrella that I would read another in the series rather than and another one from this.
SarahSo I think we should mention Melissa Bourbon’s books her Bibliomanancy Book Magic Mystery series. I think the first one is Murder in Devil’s Cove ah and in these the main character uses um, ah sorry so listeners will remember Melissa from our cozy mystery episode and in this series the main character uses bibliomancy to tell the future and to kind of solve some mysteries along the way. And I’ve read a couple of books from that that series and and really enjoyed them again. This is more magical realism because with the exception of the this magical element. The world is is kind of what we recognize.
BrookOh those are great examples. Sarah and I agree I enjoy that series as well. And um, as you say that category in cozy’s is very popular.
SarahDefinitely. I mean there’s all sorts of like ah all sorry there are so many titles in that category where you know which is a sleuth or witch and her talking dog are the sleuth pair. And I think there’s also like we were talking about at the beginning this overlap where there’s some that are you know, just kind of have witches and wizards and others that have a whole bunch of other um supernatural creatures in them and and so kind of depending on what you’re interested in, you can find something that works for you.
BrookAs with most mystery subgenres, it’s a spectrum.
SarahAbsolutely. So, Brook, thanks for today’s conversation I think it was kind of fun to take a look at mysteries with magic.
BrookI agree and there are so many little subtopics that we could dive into I’m sure this won’t be the last time we talk about magic and mysteries and thank you all for listening today to Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.