Let Us Introduce You to…Tom Mead!
By Kent Holloway, Managing Editor
Recently, I discovered a brand new mystery author named Tom Mead, who wrote a book called Death and the Conjuror. I became an instant fan. Not only was his book devious and entertaining, it featured a stage magician as the book’s amateur sleuth. Anyone who knows me knows stage magicians are my favorite kinds of sleuths. Especially when they’re done right.
On top of that, the book was set pre-World War II, during the so-called Golden Age of Mysteries. The era of the ‘Fair Play’ mystery. High society crimes. Brilliantly twisted crimes. Puzzles to be deciphered by the reader alongside the sleuth working the case. I’ll admit, upon reading it, I found myself wishing Charade Media had published it. Death and the Conjuror was that brilliant.
So, when we decided to start this blog, I knew Tom was one author I definitely wanted to include for an interview. He graciously agreed to do it. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at Tom Mead and his views on his books, his influences, and mysteries in general. I think you’re really going to enjoy this.
Welcome Tom. Thanks for joining us today on Charade Media’s Blog. You recently released your debut mystery, Death and the Conjuror (A Joseph Spector Locked-Room Mystery). I read it and became an instant fan. I’ve provided a synopsis of the book, but I love hearing authors describe their book in their own words. What’s Death and the Conjuror about? Who is Joseph Spector? What kind of sleuth is he?
Death and the Conjuror is a tribute to my favourite crime fiction subgenre: the locked-room mystery. It features a series of seemingly impossible crimes taking place in 1936 London, and in the classic tradition Scotland Yard is utterly baffled. They are therefore compelled to call on the services of retired music hall conjuror Joseph Spector. Spector is a self-consciously enigmatic figure, who likes to create a sense of mystery while simultaneously unravelling dazzlingly complex puzzles. He’s an “amateur sleuth” in the classic vein of Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen, but also a magician-detective in the tradition of Clayton Rawson’s “The Great Merlini.”
Writing a good whodunnit is hard enough. But you seem to be specializing in locked-room mysteries. The amount of thought and planning that goes into one is staggering. Not only does Death and the Conjuror feature a whopping locked-room mystery, but several. Do you enjoy torturing yourself? What prompted you to do multiple locked-room mysteries in a single book?
Ha! Nothing torturous about it, I’m just determined to keep things interesting. I often compare mystery novels to magic shows, and in both you want to try and cram as much incident and excitement into a single experience as possible, culminating in a single, dramatic reveal to cap the whole thing off. That’s always been my approach to mystery fiction, and I suppose you can say it’s a template I’ve borrowed from the Golden Age greats.
What do you think appeals to mystery readers about locked-room mysteries probably more than any other kind?
It’s a favourite phrase of mine: “retrospective illumination.” That’s the feeling you get when you reach the end of a really puzzling mystery and you start to see all the clues fall into place and realise how you’ve been duped. When it’s done right, it’s a brilliant and satisfying experience for the reader. That’s what I love about locked-room mysteries, and it’s what I hope to recapture when writing them myself.
Joseph Spector is a stage magician who uses his considerable skill and talents to solve crimes. Prior to writing this book, did you have any interest in stage magic? How much research did you have to do in magic while writing this book?
Well, I’m a big fan of stage magic myself, and I read quite a few books on the subject – particularly on the pseudo-supernatural gimmicks used by Victorian illusionists and fraudulent psychic mediums. I’m fascinated by HOW the illusions are constructed, and so I decided to incorporate elements of my reading into the narrative – it just seemed like a perfect fit. So it wasn’t as much a question of research as it was of building the narrative around my own reading and interests.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations as a writer? Your favorite authors? Your favorite TV shows? Maybe even your favorite magicians? Why are these people so special in your mind?
My favourite mystery writer is John Dickson Carr, who is rightly considered the master of the locked-room mystery. Not only was he dazzlingly skilled at planting clues and misdirecting the reader, but he also had a fabulous knack for description and atmosphere. He makes it look so easy! Other Golden Age favourites include Ellery Queen, Christianna Brand, Helen McCloy, Nicholas Blake, Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin… Really, I could go on forever!
Among modern-day authors, my favourites are those who write in the Golden Age style – that is to say, with plenty of clues, fair-play puzzle plotting, and a few other tricks up their sleeve. I’m thinking in particular of Paul Halter, Anthony Horowitz, Gigi Pandian, Peter Lovesey, Keigo Higashino, Fred Vargas and Martin Edwards.
As for TV shows, I think Columbo is the best detective show ever made, and I also love the sadly short-lived Ellery Queen TV show from the ‘70s. Not too long ago I discovered a fantastic Japanese mystery series from the 1990s called Furuhata Ninzaburo which is also well worth a look if you can track it down. Jonathan Creek remains a firm favourite because of its brilliant puzzle plots, not to mention its stage magic milieu. Monk was great, and so is Death in Paradise. I also love Poker Face.
Historically speaking, my favourite magicians are Harry Houdini (his enduring image is just so fascinating) and Nevil Maskelyne, whose “Maskelyne’s Mysteries” were a major influence on John Dickson Carr. The best magician I have seen these days is Derren Brown, who is so good that he can make you forget you are watching a magic show at all – the true mark of a master.
Along the same lines as the first question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Your book harkens back to the Golden Age of detective fiction and mysteries. Personally, it’s been sorely missed, so thank you for that. Who are some of your favorite golden age detectives/sleuths? Is it the characters themselves or the time period that draws you to them?
It’s a combination of factors really. I love the Golden Age because I’m intrigued by the period between the World Wars, but also because so many brilliant writers were enjoying the height of their success during that time. It was an era when the fair-play puzzle plot was at its most prominent, before it was superseded by the “hard-boiled” approach. What I love about the puzzle plot is the game between writer and reader; almost a cat-and-mouse battle of wits, if you like.
And as for my favourite sleuths, I’d say either of John Dickson Carr’s English gents, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, mid-period Ellery Queen (when he emerged from the shadow of Philo Vance), and of course Hercule Poirot.
Book two of the Joseph Spector series is already available for preorder. What can you tell us about it?
Well, I won’t say too much for fear of giving anything away, but here’s the blurb that is currently doing the rounds:
In London, 1938, young and idealistic lawyer Edmund Ibbs is trying to find any shred of evidence that his client Carla Dean wasn’t the one who shot her husband dead at the top of a Ferris Wheel. But the deeper he digs, the more complex the case becomes, and Edmund soon finds himself drawn into a nightmarish web of conspiracy and murder. Before long he himself is implicated in not one but two seemingly impossible crimes. First, a corpse appears out of thin air during a performance by famed illusionist “Professor Paolini” in front of a packed auditorium at the Pomegranate Theatre. Then a second victim is shot dead in a locked dressing room along one of the theatre’s winding backstage corridors. Edmund is in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time, and attracts the suspicion of Scotland Yard inspector George Flint. Luckily, conjuror-turned-detective Joseph Spector is on the scene. Only Spector’s uniquely logical perspective can pierce the veil of deceit in a world of illusion and misdirection, where seeing is not always believing.
Hopefully that will whet a few reader appetites!
Finally, if you could provide only one piece of advice to aspiring mystery writers, what would it be?
The only advice I have to offer is trite and unoriginal, but it’s also the only thing that works: you’ve got to keep going. Even when you’re feeling dispirited and disillusioned, it’s important to get the words on the page and get the story told. You can worry about the rest later.
Once again, thank you, Tom, for taking the time to answer our questions. And for you readers out there looking for a great whodunnit filled with twists and mind-bending puzzles, go out a pick up your copy of Death and the Conjuror today HERE. And if you want to know more about Tom, check out his website HERE.