Tuesday, November 14, 2023

A Tricky Business

Pastiche in fiction is a tricky business. I tend to find myself leery of a story or novel that makes it clear that it is imitating a certain writer or style or form, because why would I want to read the imitator when I can go to the earlier works? There have been so many Sherlock Holmes stories written over time since Arthur Conan Doyle died, and yet as much as I love Holmes stories, I've read very few of the pastiches because nobody can match Doyle. On the other hand, there are always exceptions, and as much as any pastiche of any kind I've ever read, I love Nicholas Meyer's The-Seven-Percent-Solution. It has a brilliant conceit, for one thing, and captures the voice and flavor of the Holmes stories almost perfectly. 

Of course, there is no true originality in fiction so the lines between pastiche, homage, tribute, parody, and plain literary influence are amorphous. To use the Conan Doyle example again: something like Michael Chabon's The Final Solution is something I would not call a pastiche per se, since it takes the Holmes character and uses him in a way that is Chabon's own, not in strict imitation of Conan Doyle. Anyway, don't all writers draw upon their influences when creating their own work? Yes, obviously, they do, though some more overtly than others. So what's a pastiche and what the mere product of a writer's influences, developed by the new writer in his or her specific way, can not only be hard to determine but also a moot point. In the end, who cares really what the work is if it's engaging and you enjoy it?

These were some of my thoughts when I read Tom Mead's Death and the Conjuror recently. I'd gone into a bookstore I sometimes frequent and said to the staff I was looking for a particular novel. I mentioned that I've been reading a lot of locked-room and impossible crime mysteries lately. I used to read them often many years ago, I said, and have now gotten back into them again. It's the fun of the puzzle, the rigorous logic, and just the pure escapism. The staff member recommended Death and the Conjuror, and I said I'd heard good things about it. What I didn't say was that I hadn't before been all that interested in picking it up because it looks so clearly like a pastiche of John Dickson Carr and other practitioners of the Golden Age locked-room mystery, down to setting the story in 1930s England. Nothing against 1930s England, but it's such familiar mystery land territory. One reason I've been so liking reading Japanese fair-play mysteries the last couple of years is because of the (to me) fresh setting and approaches these stories take to a well-known form. But regardless, the staff member said Tom Mead's book is quite well done – "elegant" is the word he used  with not one impossible crime in it but two, and I took his word for it. Besides, the book has a handsome cover.

So the verdict? Death and the Conjuror is pastiche, tribute, hommage  call it what you will – done right. Set in London in 1936, it follows retired stage magician turned part-time sleuth Joseph Spector as he and Scotland Yard inspector Joseph Flint do  in fact solve two crimes: one, a locked room murder of a prominent psychiatrist, and two, the "impossible" robbery from a house party of a famous painting. The puzzles themselves are confounding, the suspects an interesting and theatrical lot, the atmosphere enjoyably macabre when appropriate in the story. But what I especially liked was the book's style, which is not a slavish imitation of an older style, which a writer might have used back in the 1930s, but a brisk prose that reads like a slight updating of an older style. It sounds fresh and has a contemporary pacing while at the same time avoiding anachronisms, phrases, and attitudes that sound like they would come from 2022 (when the book was published). 

Adding to the pleasure is the way Meade leans into the tradition he is writing in and signals that awareness to the reader. This is especially true in a chapter in which Joseph Spector gives a brief disquisition on the locked room problem and cites, while speaking, the original chapter that is a lecture on impossible crimes and locked room problems in John Dickson Carr's 1935 novel The Hollow Man. Later, just before the solution, Mead addresses the reader directly much as Ellery Queen did in his early books, though the author acknowledges that "these days such practices are antiquated and rather passe". Still, as he says, who is he "to stand in the way of a reader's fun?" 

Who indeed? He has not in any way hindered a reader's fun, certainly not this reader, and I'm on board to read some more of his inventive nods to a tradition of literary misdirection.

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