It’s funny, but whenever a reader or interviewer describes my Joseph Spector books – Death and the Conjuror and its sequel, The Murder Wheel – as “cosy”, my instinct is to disagree. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no snob when it comes to cosy crime. It’s just that I never think about my work in those terms. For me personally, the most interesting aspect of any crime novel – from the frothiest cosy to the grimmest police procedural – is always the puzzle.
I consider the Spector novels to be mysteries, pure and simple. They’re set in 1930s London, and pay tribute to the so-called “Golden Age of Detective Fiction”. Of course, some readers automatically classify whodunits from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s as cosy; again, I have to take issue with that. Consider Agatha Christie: her novels Endless Night, Towards Zero, Murder is Easy, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and A Caribbean Mystery offer chilling portraits of psychopathy. Likewise, The Pale Horse is a haunting tale of murder disguised as witchcraft, and features an ingenious murder method that was subsequently appropriated by a real-life killer. Nothing cosy there!
A particular Golden Age favourite of mine is John Dickson Carr, who was himself enthralled by Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed, Poe’s lurid and macabre sensibilities pervade Carr’s early work, and that’s something I’ve tried to recapture in my own books. I made a conscious decision to embrace the bizarre, the surreal, and the baroque. Carr was also a specialist in locked-room mysteries, another aspect I enjoy emulating; my fictional detective, Joseph Spector, is a retired music hall magician with “a knack for explaining the inexplicable.” As such, these elements of magic and outright weirdness lend themselves to more unorthodox investigations.
But I’m also an avid researcher, and writing The Murder Wheel sent me down some fascinating historical rabbit-holes. For instance, the novel begins with a “cause celebre” murder case where a wife is accused of murdering her husband at the top of a Ferris wheel. The case is imaginary, but the main suspect, Carla Dean, has a few things in common with Edith Thompson and Elvira Barney, both of whom were tried for murder in the 1920s. Additionally, I researched a number of real-life locked-room mysteries – crimes where it seemed impossible for the killer to have come and gone without leaving a trace. These include the famous unsolved murders of Joseph Bowne Elwell and Isidore Fink, which are legendary among true crime aficionados.
The novel also embraces the worlds of professional illusion and theatre. Real-life magic tricks like the bullet catch and the “Assistant’s Revenge” are featured, as is a cameo by P.T. Selbit, the illusionist often credited with popularising the “sawing the woman in half” trick. Above all, though, I consider the book itself (and the Spector series as a whole) to be a kind of literary magic show. Regardless of genre – whether your taste is for cosies, historicals, procedurals, or simply whodunits – I hope that you will enjoy immersing yourself in the colourful, strange, mysterious world of The Murder Wheel.
The Murder Wheel by Tom Mead is published by Head of Zeus on 12 October at £20