We love mystery!

Magic and Mysteries (part 2)

Brook and Sarah are joined by author Tom Mead to continue their discussion about magic and mysteries.


Death and the Conjuror (2022) Tom Mead

The Murder Wheel (2023) Tom Mead

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 20 21 (2021) Lee Child (editor)

Knives Out (2019) Netflix

Death in Paradise (2011-2023) BBC

Jonathan Creek (1997-2016) BBC

Gigi Pandian Secret Staircase Mysteries

Death from a Top Hat (1938) Clayton Rawson

The Hangman’s Handyman (1942) Hake Talbot

Rim of the Pit (1944) Hake Talbot

“Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) Edgar Allan Poe

About Tom

Website: https://tommeadauthor.com/

Instagram: @TomMeadAuthor

Twitter: @TomMeadAuthor


For more information

Instagram: @cluedinmystery
Contact us: hello@cluedinmystery.com
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.
BrookGood morning, Sarah. Well, it’s morning for us. But for our guest today who’s in the UK, it’s already the afternoon. Today we’re continuing the conversation that we started last week about magic and mystery with author Tom Mead. Welcome, Tom.
Tom MeadThank you very much. Thank you both for having me.
BrookTom Mead is a UK author specializing in locked room mysteries. He’s a member of the Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers’ Organization. He’s the author of Death and the Conjuror and the sequel The Murder Wheel. His stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Mystery Weekly among others several of his pieces have also been anthologized including “Heat Wave” in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year of 2021 which was edited by Lee Child. His debut novel Death and the Conjuror was selected as one of the top 10 best mysteries of the year by Publishers Weekly so it’s just a thrill to have you, Tom.
Tom MeadThank you. Yes, I’m delighted to be here. Thank you.
BrookSo, we both have enjoyed your books Death and the Conjuror and The Murder Wheel and you specialize in writing these locked room mysteries. Why do you think these were so popular in the Golden Age and actually seemed to be making a comeback?
Tom MeadWell, I think the locked room mystery is overall the most challenging, exciting, and all round interesting subgenre really of detective fiction. For those who don’t know the genre, it’s a kind of a subspecies of the conventional puzzle mystery, the whodunnit. But the question here, and in a lot of mystery, is not just who committed a crime, but how physically the crime was committed. There’s always the appearance that a criminal has done something physically impossible whether that is vanished into thin air or crossed a patch of snow without leaving a footprint. The locked room, or the impossible crime story, has got a lot in common with stage illusion because there’s often a sense of something uncanny or something supernatural at work whether it’s a phantom assailant or something similar. But there’s always a rational, earthly explanation. I think the appeal lies in the intellectual challenge. I think that’s why the genre was so popular in the 20s and 30s because it’s really it really comes down to a battle of wit.
Tom MeadBetween the writer and the reader it’s a kind of it’s a game of intellectual cat and mouse and um, ah yes, the Golden Age, which is a term that typically refers to the the period between the world wars when there was a real boom in that particular type of puzzle mystery. Um I think so that so the 20s and 30s really saw just a real boom in that particular type of puzzle where it was about engaging the reader on a surface level but also on an intellectual level. So it was about presenting an exciting story but also a puzzle to be solved and ah and a game to be played. And so as for the the resurgence of the locked room, it’s been in the works for a while now. But I think people are being drawn towards more complex puzzle plots again, thanks to certain mainstream hits like Knives Out.
Tom MeadHere in the UK, Death in Paradise is a very big show, which makes use of the puzzle plot. But also the seeming impossibility. So. It’s just great to see all these new writers embracing all the things that made the Golden Age great.
SarahSo in your stories, Tom, you reveal some of the mechanics behind a few magic tricks. How much time did you spend researching popular illusions from the time period that you write about?
Tom MeadWell, I am I am fascinated by magic tricks. In other words, the mechanics of magic tricks. So the physical gimmicks used by stage magicians. The Murder Wheel features the seemingly impossible materialization of a corpse on stage during a magic show. So, to me that was a kind of ultimate crossover between my interests in mystery and magic. But I do a lot of reading of nonfiction and historical works about the practice of stage magic and the history of it and often that will stimulate ideas for the mysteries that are that I’m writing.
Tom MeadThe Victorian era was a time when stage magic really came into its own. There were many tricks, many gimmicks, many large-scale illusions that were developed during that time. That would become commonplace in the in the twentieth century and would become standard theatrical practice but during the sort of late Victorian era these kinds of illusions were new and they were still being experimented with and um so I think. Ah, that is if you like the Golden Age of stage magic when um, ah when tricks when illusions and effects like Pepper’s Ghost and things like that. Things were being devised and experimented in in public for the first time. So, I love to read about that kind of thing and think about how I could use that in a mystery plot whether it be as a red herring something to um, send the reader in the wrong direction or whether it’s ah, an actual intrinsic part of the of the mystery itself. But I’m also fascinated by the theory behind stage magic. So how tricks ah work in in a more abstract sense how they work on the brain. How as audiences we are guided to look in the wrong direction and the the kinds of the gaps in our perception that magicians exploit. Which to me are similar to ah to those that mystery writers exploit in both cases you’re sending an audience in the wrong direction. You’re working a trick in front of them and via misdirection you’re making sure they don’t spot how the trick works until you’re ready to to show them. So my writing is largely suggested by the general reading I do in the about magic and about magic theory about the practical side but also the theoretical side.
SarahIs it a no-no to reveal some of those secrets behind those tricks?
Tom MeadFor magicians, yes, definitely. But I am fascinated by how tricks are done. And I think that’s part of the fun that’s something that’s always interested me. But then I’m not a magician. I don’t claim to be a magician. So I’m quite happy to give away tricks because I think well it has a natural and appeal to you know human curiosity you want to know how something is done.
Tom MeadBut also, that’s the difference between magic and ah the locked room mystery. In the locked room you have to give away this solution at the end you have to explain how it was done and the trick. Ah it becomes a question of providing satisfaction to the reader a satisfactory conclusion. If the gimmick is too ordinary, too prosaic, and dull, then the reader is inevitably left feeling shortchanged. So I think whereas magicians are forbidden to show how a trick is done, with the mystery writer, you are laying out the solution to the puzzle. But at the same time you’re trying to come up with the most colorful exciting and intriguing solution as you can. I mean I often talk about ah retrospective inevitability as a feature of a good um mystery solution. This idea that your reader will kick themselves because they didn’t spot the trick that was hidden in plain sight. And as a reader that personally that is one of the great joys of finding a good mystery is when you see how you’ve been tricked and you see how the illusion was worked by the writer and I love that. That’s what I’m trying to do with these Spector books, to give readers that same feeling. So, in some respects, it’s like a magic trick, my magic show but because inevitably have to lift the curtain at the end and reveal how it was all done, that is ah that’s where the two differ.
BrookYeah, that’s fascinating I love all the metaphors that you weave into the stories about the similarities of ah the magic show and and mystery fiction. In your latest book The Murder Wheel, your magician sleuth is Joseph Spector and he explains that there has been a quote trick within a trick. Would you say that that’s essentially what’s going on in all locked room mysteries?
Tom MeadYes, a hundred percent. My approach as a writer of locked room mysteries and the thing that I really appreciate as a reader is the different levels of illusion and mystification at work. So, there can be physical tricks as in clever gimmicks used to for example, lock a door from the outside that kind of thing but then there are also more abstract tricks which involved subtle placement of clues in plain sight, reinterpretation of a line of dialogue which takes on sudden significance when ah when placed in a fresh context. Also ah misdirection.
Tom MeadAnd deliberate obfuscation concerning identities and disguise things like that. And I think the best examples of the genre, the ones where all of those different levels of illusion come into play at once for me the writer the really opened my eyes to the to the scale and the true potential of the locked room mystery is John Dixon Carr. And he was one of the he was ah one of the greatest authors of the Golden Age I would place him up there with Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, all the greats. But he was the acknowledged master of the locked room mystery, not just because he was so prolific in that genre but because he was so imaginative so creative. And no two of his books are the same. He didn’t recycle or reuse tricks in the way that some Golden Age authors did. And I mentioned clue placement. He was a true master of that. But so was car and so was Ellery Queen. The placement of clues, the different variety of clues, and the playfulness of some of them I think that kind of feeds into one entity and really in a locked room mystery you want all of that. You want to you want the fun, but you want the atmosphere, the sense of mystique. But at the same time a kind of tongue in cheek humor to it.
SarahThat’s great and just building on that kind of idea of the overlap between magic and mystery and fun having a magician as a sleuth is a is a great character. So who are some of your fictional favorites either contemporary or or some from the Golden Age?
Tom MeadWell, when it comes to magician sleuths, I ah grew up watching the BBC show Jonathan Creek ah where the amateur detective is a man who designs illusions for a professional stage conjuror so that that shows great because it had a lot of humor. It was amusing and but at the same time it featured very ah complex fair play puzzle plots in the Golden Age tradition. So all the clues were there and there was great ingenuity in the plotting so it was that was a nice, um, kind of entry level locked room mystery experience when I was younger. It was a great way to kind of discover the genre. In terms of contemporary writers and magician sleuths, my friend Gigi Pandian, who writes several different series but her Secret Staircase Mysteries are particularly good in my opinion because they feature impossible crimes, locked room mysteries, magic tricks, all kinds of fun things.
Tom MeadAnd her detective Tempest Raj is a is a magician, so I would definitely recommend the Secret Staircase Mysteries. But going back to the Golden Age, the kind of the archetype of the Golden Age sleuth this idea of the amateur detective who’s roped in by ah police or the authorities to investigate because they have a particular insight or or skill at deduction. Um. And think it lends itself naturally to ah having ah a magician or someone who specializes in illusions as a detective. Clayton Rawson wrote a great series featuring a magician as detective, who is known as the Great Merlini. He first appears in Death from a Top Hat, which is a superb locked room mystery but also a fascinating um social document if you like about stage magic during that period. It’s got so many references and um, ah you know little in jokes and things concerning stage magic and the theatrical life at that time because Clayton Rawson as well as a mystery novelist, he was a magician himself.
Tom MeadAnd he was he was a friend of John Dixon Carr, who I’ve already mentioned. So yes, the Merlini series is particularly interesting for someone like me certainly who loves magic but who’s also fascinated by you know, the clever complex plotting and the misdirection, etc. But there’s another author from that era who ah he um he was a professional magician himself. And he only wrote a couple of novels but they’re both really brilliant. His name was Henning Nelms that was his that was his real name. He wrote under the pseudonym of Hake Talbot and he wrote two books, which are truly fantastic. And the first one was called The Hangman’s Handyman that is that’s a good one but then the second one The Rim of the Pit is ah his absolute masterpiece. It’s a perfect cocktail of illusion and atmosphere where a group of people are stranded in a snowbound cabin. And they find themselves assailed by seemingly supernatural forces. But of course, because it’s a fair play locked room mystery, there is a rational explanation for it all.
Tom MeadAnd it and it unfurls incredibly satisfactorily, so I definitely recommend seeking out Hake Talbot. But um, like I say there are only two novels and the detective is not a magician but because. Henning Nelms himself was a magician and wrote many interesting works about the practice of stage magic I think it it still qualifies.
BrookThose are fantastic recommendations Tom and those titles by Talbot, his titles are fantastic too. It’s great.
Tom MeadAh, most definitely yes, Rim of the Pit gives you a kind of a hint of something otherworldly going on something supernatural something demonic um and the stories are really ah, crammed with atmosphere.
Tom MeadJohn Dixon Carr was also superb at creating an atmosphere of ah, kind of creeping dread and eeriness and the hint that maybe there is something supernatural going on. I think that comes from. Edgar Allan Poe, that the kind of gothic tradition which because Poe ostensibly wrote that the first locked room mystery “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and he was a great innovator of detective fiction generally. But his fictional detective August Dupin was in a huge influence on Conan Doyle’s characterization of Sherlock Holmes which in turn influenced the Golden Age. So I think there’s kind of a thread of the gothic and a sense of atmosphere a kind of ah vivid lurid occasionally gruesome atmosphere to these stories, which really sets them apart I think and that’s part of the appeal for me.
BrookAnd I definitely sense that in your work too, Tom. You have that same atmosphere. The feeling of you know, questioning what’s really going on. Is there something supernatural? You accomplish that really well. I think that we’ve already answered our final question so I’m going to go off script just a little bit and just ask you what you’re working on next.
Tom MeadYeah, absolutely, that’s a great question I’m actually between books at the moment. I have finished book three in my Spector series. It is called Cabaret Macabre and it comes out next summer, again, published by Mysterious Press and I am about to begin work on book 4. So, like I say, I’m between the projects but I’m currently stockpiling ideas for the next one.
BrookThat’s great. We’re looking forward to it.
Tom MeadYes, thank you very much. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
SarahAnd so, Tom, where can our listeners find you?
Tom MeadOh yes, I’m on all the social media @tommeadauthor. So I do Facebook, I find is a great way to engage with readers directly. But I’m also on Twitter, x, whatever you want to call it. I recently joined Instagram and um, I’m also on Bluesky if any of your listeners are on Bluesky I’m on there. And my website is https://tommeadauthor.com/
BrookThat’s wonderful. Thank you again for joining us, Tom this has been such a great. I feel like we have like an overview of the history of magic and mystery and this is going to be so worthwhile I know to our listeners.
Tom MeadMy pleasure. Thank you both for having me.
BrookAnd thank you all for listening today on Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.