The Role of Magicians in Mystery Fiction
The misdirection a mystery author uses when constructing a satisfying novel is quite similar to the misdirection a stage magician uses when creating a successful trick. The parallels are especially clear in a particular style of mystery: locked-room mysteries, aka impossible crimes.
We know “real” magic doesn’t exist, yet stage magicians fool our senses when we’re convinced we’ve witnessed something impossible. If a magician has done their job, we believe we’ve witnessed a miracle. Stage magicians are perfect sleuths for impossible crime mysteries because they’re primed to think through all the possibilities for creating the illusion of the impossible under a similar set of circumstances.
My love of magic began with the mystery fiction I read as a kid. I loved mysteries of all kinds, including the Golden Age of detective fiction, when stage magicians and puzzle plot mysteries like locked-room mysteries were incredibly popular. The second short story I ever wrote was a locked-room mystery featuring a stage magician (Sanjay Rai, who performs as The Hindi Houdini), which is when I realized what a perfect skill-set a magician has for solving seemingly impossible crimes. I’ve since written many more locked-room mysteries with Sanjay as the sleuth, and my latest novel, Under Lock & Skeleton Key, features stage illusionist Tempest Raj, who must solve a locked-room mystery to prove that there’s no such thing as the Raj family curse that has plagued her family for generations.
Here are some of my favorite mysteries involving stage magicians who use their knowledge of misdirection to solve seemingly impossible crimes:
Death from a Top Hat
Clayton Rawson; Otto Penzler
Clayton Rawson’s Merlini mysteries
Death from a Top Hat is the first novel featuring Clayton Rawson’s magician character The Great Merlini, which was first published in 1938. An occultist is murdered in a locked room, leaving the characters to wonder if there’s a supernatural explanation, but illusionist Merlini provides a thoroughly satisfying rational resolution. Rawson was a friend of better-known locked-room mystery novelist John Dickson Carr, and although Carr occasionally wrote magicians into his fiction, it was Rawson who created two recurring magician characters, Merlini and Don Diavolo.
Though it’s unsurprising to find magicians solving impossible crimes in the mysteries of the Golden Age of detective fiction from nearly a century ago, there’s a resurgence of this type of mystery today, and not just in traditional mysteries. Some of the best thriller authors writing today have incorporated magicians solving seemingly impossible crimes into their books.
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The first Jessica Blackwood thriller, Angel Killer, is filled with ingenious impossible crimes, and this type of baffling mystery continues throughout the terrific series. In Angel Killer, a young woman is found dead in a cemetery, looking as if she tried to crawl out of her own grave that’s buried deep in the earth. Not only that, but she’s only been dead a few hours, yet she originally died and was buried many years ago. The impossibilities continue as more dead bodies appear. Magician-turned-FBI-agent Jessica Blackwood must use her knowledge from her childhood growing up in a family of magicians to see through the misdirection of “the Warlock” to prove to the public that he can’t truly perform miracles. Mayne is a performing magician from a family of FBI agents, so his knowledge of both professions comes through on the page.
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The Vanished Man
The Vanished Man is another thriller to feature magicians and impossible crimes. In the fifth Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs thriller, there’s not only a magician helping solve the crimes, but an illusionist (“the conjurer”) appears to be committing the crimes. The book opens with an impossible crime, as a killer vanishes from a locked classroom at a music school where a murder has taken place. That’s only the beginning of a series of baffling escapes.
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Death and the Conjuror
Coming full circle back to the Golden Age of detective fiction, many present-day writers choose to set their locked-room mysteries in the past. Prolific short story writer Tom Mead has written about magician Joseph Spector in his short fiction (including “The Indian Rope Trick” published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine), and now the magician gets a full-length novel. Mead’s debut novel, Death and the Conjuror, comes out later this year, and I can’t wait to read it. Set in the 1930s, the mystery revolves around a celebrity psychiatrist who’s found dead in a locked room, with no way the killer could have escaped.
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On the cozier end of the mystery spectrum, John Gaspard’s humorous Eli Marks mystery series features Eli Marks, who makes his living as a magician and keeps finding himself pulled into solving crimes. Each of the books in the series is named after a magic trick. In The Miser’s Dream, Eli sees a dead body in a building across the street, but when the police arrive they find the room locked from the inside. The plot is filled with sleight of hand, and the solution is terrific.
I hope you’ll have fun exploring these locked-room mysteries featuring magician sleuths, as well as many more.
About the Author
Gigi Pandian is a USA Today bestselling and award-winning mystery author, breast cancer survivor, and accidental almost-vegan. The child of cultural anthropologists from New Mexico and the southern tip of India, she spent her childhood being dragged around the world on their research trips, which inspired her fiction. She writes the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mysteries, Accidental Alchemist mysteries, and Secret Staircase mysteries. She’s been awarded Agatha, Anthony, Lefty, and Derringer awards, and is a co-founder of Crime Writers of Color. Her latest novel is locked-room mystery Under Lock & Skeleton Key, featuring a stage magician as the sleuth. Learn more and sign up for her email newsletter (which includes a free locked-room mystery story) at www.gigipandian.com.
Under Lock and Skeleton Key
After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.
When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her.
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