One of the things I often comment on in my reviews is the blurb. How good a job does it do? Does it whet my appetite to the book? Is any of it misleading or inaccurate? With today’s read I can give the blurb a strong thumbs up. Not only does it introduce the story well, but it importantly doesn’t tell you anything, or suggest something, which is not the case. This can be a bit of pet peeve of mine. In addition, I liked how it conveyed the intriguing nature of the plot premise, which certainly ups the ante on the crime fiction trope of a group of individuals unable to escape a confined geographical location being bumped off, with its use of a plague.
I was pleasantly surprised and pleased when Jim Noy revealed what his book was about, as back in 2016 I had written a blog post which briefly considered the locked room/impossible crime potential of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ I should point out though, that Jim had been pondering this for many more years prior to this post. But it is nice when things coincide.
‘A deadly plague
The pestilence known as the Red Death had devastated Prince Prospero’s lands, and so he retired to his isolated castle with several hundred friends to outwait the blight in safety. Here, they distracted themselves from the horror outside the walls with decadent revelry and voluptuous self-indulgence.
A new threat
Now, the handful of loyal men who remain realise that they have merely exchanged one danger for another: a masked figure robed in scarlet stalks the shadowy halls, launching a violent attack on the prince before apparently evaporating in front of witnesses.
An impossible murder
When one of their number is found slain in a room sealed on the inside, Sir William Collingwood vows to unmask the murderer in their midst. But what sense can be made of the apparently unexplainable deaths that follow? Why commit murder in the middle of a plague? And how do you catch a killer who can seemingly walk-through walls and vanish into thin air?’
There are many ways to open a mystery novel, some better than others. Expositions which provide a heavy info dump are a bit turn off for me and I think it is one that some writers new to the profession can fall into. However, this is not a concern you need have with The Red Death Murders. This is a definite asset to the story given that the author needs to do some world building, as well as get the reader on board with what the current situation is for the characters. This is achieved with a gentle but effective touch and throughout the first chapter or two you can see several narrative shoots sprouting and beginning to take form. By not providing all the information in one go, the reader is intrigued but still has some way to go before piecing everything together. Throughout the course of the novel further backstory is revealed, but it is done in a timely fashion and is always relevant to the current situation.
Another skill strongly in evidence is the ability to show and not tell and we see this from the very start when Sir William, Sir Marcus and Thomas find their first body and they are differing in opinion over what might have happened. Sir William invites his adolescent servant, Thomas, into this discussion, requesting he look at the body before Sir William reveals why he thinks it is murder and not suicide. This narrative choice is good at aiding the reader in making deductions as we are looking at the scene as Thomas does. It did feel a little awkward when the rationale for Thomas being involved is brought up, (sounded a little like his employer was giving him free brain training), but this was a momentary thing, and it comes across as more naturalistic in the rest of the book. Moreover, I found it interesting to have the three of them discussing the possibilities from the get-go and importantly these discussions are not dense or dull theorising.
Something else which struck me was that we know from the start it is a castle setting, but that it is remarkably sparse in terms of its human population. In the initial chapters there are only the three characters mentioned above involved and the corpse they encounter. However, this is not a bad thing, just a point of interest to me, and I did remember that the author is not keen on mysteries which commence with a mass introduction of characters. It transpires that corpse aside the castle inhabitants only number 8 and it is engagingly and thoughtfully explained why numbers have dwindled. Most of Prince Prospero’s guests had arrived hoping he would have a plan to defeat the disease rampaging through the land. Instead, Prince Prospero just wanted to hide away and party. Optimism soon sours and embarrassment, disappointment and anger replace it. This aspect of the book felt surprisingly relevant to the pandemic in current times, and I wondered whether the author’s experience of this situation feed into and shaped his writing. I liked having this smaller number of suspects to concentrate on and the writer makes good use of having a large setting but few characters to populate it. Plenty of space for sinister and deadly things to occur…
Whilst Jim Noy definitely provides his readers with a puzzle and then some, he does not neglect other story writing components. In particular I felt he maintains a convincing drive for the case to be solved, and interestingly the motivation for this drive morphs over time, as more information becomes available to the characters. Initially, for Thomas self-preservation is arguably a factor in him wanting to help solve the case, but I think this drives changes and becomes more emotionally fraught.
Young Thomas is a well-deployed protagonist in this mystery, and he occupies a role which has some elements of the accidental sleuth, but also shares some traits of the Watson-type character. He is in no way sycophantic, but he does become a filter for the actions and thoughts of others, channelling them to the reader. Whilst Thomas is only 13 years old, he is not a precocious juvenile and his age is not played for comic effect, which fits in with the quasi-Medieval world of the book, in which adolescents that age were treated more like adults. Jim often reviews mysteries for younger readers on his blog, (The Invisible Event), so something else I wondered was if this influenced his choice of protagonist.
The Red Death Murders has a plot which never stagnates or flags, as just around the corner there is a new crisis or development to be sprung upon us and the characters, such as a body disappearing. I did cheekily think the writer might have been inspired by his reading of Constance and Gwenyth Little, whose mysteries abound with corpses which never stick around for long. I say cheekily, as I know Jim was not a complete fan of their work!
This is an action-packed story and I liked how Thomas does not treat each new death as a further jigsaw puzzle piece. He reacts with feeling to the increasing cacophony of shocking events. He is not detached from it all. Nevertheless, as readers we are encouraged to keep asking questions about what is going on. How much can we trust? Is something a smokescreen? Does this new information tally with what we were told in chapters previously? The reader must keep on their toes! This is not a mystery lacking in tension and what adds an additional dimension to the crime solving experience for the characters is that everyone has a different agenda. They are not all seeking the same goal and an interesting thread of danger works its way into the plot as it looks like the violent agendas of some might become more dominant. Survival is a very real priority, in the way it is in Agatha Christie’s And Then There None (1939). The castle is not a space they can safely investigate in yet going outside poses further dangers.
The concluding chapters juggle well a lot of pleasing elements. The solution is reached at in a way that requires some trial-and-error experimentation, which I liked, as sometimes “Great Detectives” do have an annoying knack of getting things right first time. We also see a Christianna Brand-esque sequence of twists and more than one upending of what we thought we knew. I also wondered if there was a slight nod to Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929). All of this heightens the suspense and enables the author to show the real personal investment Thomas has in the outcome of the crimes.
For a first novel this is a resounding success, avoiding pitfalls which have stymied many a first-time author. Moreover, the positive components Jim includes in his narrative: clues, action, tension, surprises etc.) pleasingly tesselate well. All I can say is I want more!!
P. S. In the acknowledgements I noticed one interesting line: ‘Richard Taylor deserves huge credit for allowing me to risk my life in the name of research.’ What did Jim do??? Very intriguing, given the plot of the book!