“Either Sir Oswin Bassingham – war hero, general and right-hand man to the King – attacked Price Prospero, ran downstairs when discovered, and vanished in a puff of smoke only to reappear elsewhere and then seal himself in the privy and commit suicide in, we presume, regret – forgetting in his distress that he had been left-handed his entire life – or the plague which has trapped us here took on a physical form to enact a vendetta against the Prince for reasons unknown, and is able to stalk us through stone walls while strangling some of us, stabbing others and slitting the wrists of yet others behind sealed doors for reasons we are yet to discover.”
Yes, that just about sums it up nicely. Authors can be so helpful sometimes…
It was an odd feeling that I got when I discovered that Jim Noy, he of The Invisible Event blog, had produced his first mystery novel. First of all, I was delighted that my friend’s labour of love had finally seen fruition. Then there was a very brief panic that now my followers are going to expect me to write something. And then there was a genuine feeling of panic that, as I’m duty bound by my solemn blogging vows to review every mystery novel that I read – what if it wasn’t very good?
Luckily, that wasn’t a problem at all – far from it.
It’s hard to find an exact comparison with something in the existing genre for the book. Clearly inspired by Jim’s love of locked room mysteries – there are three (arguably four) impossible crimes here – and complete with a Challenge To The Reader, along with a number of false solutions spread throughout… but it’s hard to think of a Golden Age mystery that is a reimagining of a classic gothic tale, in this case, as one might guess from the title, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque Of The Red Death.
I’ve not read that book – I think I watched the Vincent Price film once upon a time, but I don’t remember much about it and it didn’t inspire me to read the short story. Happily, there’s no need to know anything about that story – basically there’s a plague keeping everyone inside the castle. The incidents in the mystery echo some of the main beats but it doesn’t hurt it at all if you don’t know what those beats are.
Setting what is to an extent an historical mystery – so no fingerprints or DNA for example – in a fictional world helps as well as the backstory and motivations can be tailored to fit the story. Jim’s world-building here is impressive as the reader gets a clear picture of what is going on in the background without it being delivered in solid chunks of unsubtle exposition.
On to the story, and it’s told from the perspective of the young servant Thomas, who acts as the Watson (albeit a much smarter Watson) to Sir William Collingwood, who acts as the sleuth for the story. Thomas is a good point of view character, as he is allowed deductions, both false and true, of his own, while being swept up in the events himself as he becomes more involved in the machinations taking part within the castle’s walls.
The mystery is an intriguing one, with Jim doing a good job of juggling a small cast of suspects. One of the locked room solutions is rather technical, so he wisely reveals this before the finale as I don’t think it’s something that could reasonably be deduced by the reader. You could make the same criticism, to be honest, about the details of the solution of the primary murder – the one with the goblet – but while it seems unlikely to be feasible, it should be noted that there is enough to spot that the killer did… something and Jim does thank a medical professional in his afterword, so pretty sure that it is possible.
This is a very impressed debut novel and an engrossing read. Perhaps the killer’s ability to produce such a complex plan so quickly is questionable – as in the case of a lot of classic crime novels – and perhaps there is one too many fake-outs after the Challenge to the Reader… oh, and it completely fails the Bechdel test, but this are minor quibbles. I would strongly recommend this book to any mystery fan – something familiar and quite different at the same time, told with an impressive confidence from a debut author. Any publishing house out there who reads this, I strongly suggest you get in touch with Jim, as I’m sure book two, whatever shape it may take, will be just as impressive.
The Red Death Murders is available now from Amazon and other booksellers (I presume).