The Bookshop Podcast

Exploring the Art of Mystery Writing and Magic with Crime Fiction Author Tom Mead

October 23, 2023 Mandy Jackson-Beverly Season 1 Episode 222
Exploring the Art of Mystery Writing and Magic with Crime Fiction Author Tom Mead
The Bookshop Podcast
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The Bookshop Podcast
Exploring the Art of Mystery Writing and Magic with Crime Fiction Author Tom Mead
Oct 23, 2023 Season 1 Episode 222
Mandy Jackson-Beverly

Tease your curiosity with Tom Mead, a UK crime fiction author whose passion for golden age mystery authors and locked room mysteries will captivate your attention. Tom unravels the craft of creating an intriguing whodunit, discussing locked room and closed circle mysteries, and the allure of puzzle style mysteries that have fascinated readers for centuries.

We then dive into the fascinating intersection of mystery writing and magic. Through Tom's insights, we discover how principles used by magicians can be instrumental in mystery writing. We also take a peep into the golden age of mystery pre-World War II England through Tom's meticulous research process and his use of language. Engage with an author's journey from a first manuscript to a publishing deal, as Tom shares his experiences with The Mysterious Press, an Imprint of Penzler Publishers. This episode is a treat for all mystery lovers, filled with rich insights, captivating anecdotes and a deep dive into the world of locked room mysteries.

Tom Mead is a UK crime fiction author specialising in locked-room mysteries. He is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers’ Organization. His debut novel, Death And The Conjuror, featured magician-detective Joseph Spector who also appears in his new novel is The Murder Wheel.

Tom Mead

The Murder Wheel, Tom Mead

Death And The Conjuror, Tom Mead

Agatha Christie

Clayton Rawson

Ellery Queen

Otto Penzler on The Bookshop Podcast

The Mysterious Bookshop

Otto Penzler and Tom Mead Interview

Oliver Sacks

Sleight of Mind, Matt Cook

Funeral in the fog, Edward D. Hoch 

Borges: Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Tease your curiosity with Tom Mead, a UK crime fiction author whose passion for golden age mystery authors and locked room mysteries will captivate your attention. Tom unravels the craft of creating an intriguing whodunit, discussing locked room and closed circle mysteries, and the allure of puzzle style mysteries that have fascinated readers for centuries.

We then dive into the fascinating intersection of mystery writing and magic. Through Tom's insights, we discover how principles used by magicians can be instrumental in mystery writing. We also take a peep into the golden age of mystery pre-World War II England through Tom's meticulous research process and his use of language. Engage with an author's journey from a first manuscript to a publishing deal, as Tom shares his experiences with The Mysterious Press, an Imprint of Penzler Publishers. This episode is a treat for all mystery lovers, filled with rich insights, captivating anecdotes and a deep dive into the world of locked room mysteries.

Tom Mead is a UK crime fiction author specialising in locked-room mysteries. He is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers’ Organization. His debut novel, Death And The Conjuror, featured magician-detective Joseph Spector who also appears in his new novel is The Murder Wheel.

Tom Mead

The Murder Wheel, Tom Mead

Death And The Conjuror, Tom Mead

Agatha Christie

Clayton Rawson

Ellery Queen

Otto Penzler on The Bookshop Podcast

The Mysterious Bookshop

Otto Penzler and Tom Mead Interview

Oliver Sacks

Sleight of Mind, Matt Cook

Funeral in the fog, Edward D. Hoch 

Borges: Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

Support the Show.

The Bookshop Podcast
Mandy Jackson-Beverly
Social Media Links

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

Hi, my name is Mandy Jackson Beverly and I'm a Bibliophile. Welcome to the Bookshop Podcast. Each week, I present interviews with independent bookshop owners from around the globe, authors, and specialists in subjects dear to my heart the environment and social justice. To help the show reach more people, please share it with friends and family and on social media, and remember to subscribe and leave a review wherever you listen to this podcast. You're listening to Episode 222. Tom Mead is a UK crime fiction author specializing in locked room mysteries. He is a member of the Crime Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Organization. His debut novel, Death And The Conjuror, featured magician detective Joseph Spector, who also features in Tom's new novel, The Murder Wheel. Hi, Tom, and welcome to the show. It's lovely to have you here.

Tom Mead:

Hi, Mandy, thank you so much for having me.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

It's my pleasure. Let's begin with learning about you and what led you to write crime fiction.

Tom Mead:

Well, I used to work in education. So I worked at the University of Derby, which is our local university, and then at Derby College, which is for ages 16 to 18. But in the meantime, while I was working those jobs, I was also writing freelance. I had studied creative writing at university, so it was always something that I wanted to get into and I'd always been reading crime fiction and murder mysteries from a very young age. I mean, I've talked in the past about growing up surrounded by Agatha Christie paperbacks, but there really were. We had them stacked around the place, those Fontana paperbacks of Agatha Christie novels with those fabulous painted covers by the likes of Tom Adams, who was such a wonderful artist.

Tom Mead:

And even before I read them, obviously, those ages were hugely appealing to me, very kind of lurid and gothic and macabre. So even as a child I was drawn to the books, even before I read them. So once I started reading, I discovered a love of classic puzzle style mysteries where the question is who done it, but also how, and where the emphasis is on resolving that puzzle. So inevitably, I suppose, once I'd completed my studies and once I was looking at writing professionally, I came back to the genre that had really been my first love. I suppose the genre that interested me the most from a very young age. Agatha Christie was obviously a gateway to the golden age of crime fiction. So the likes of John Dixon Carr, Ellery Queen, Helen McCloy, Christiana Brand, Edmund Crispin, Nicholas Blake, so many names. When I started to write fiction under my own name it was very much a conscious tribute to the golden age and to those great writers.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

Yes, it certainly was a golden age of writers. Your first novel, Death and the Conjuror, featured Joseph Spector, as does your latest, the Murder Wheel, and they are both presented as locked- room mysteries. Now you've talked about this a little, but for our listeners, I'm wondering if you could explain this sub-genre of crime fiction and what draws you into writing this genre of mystery fiction.

Tom Mead:

Certainly yes. Well, I suppose first of all I'd better define it. As I understand it, it is a term that gets bandied around not always correctly, in my opinion, anyway but locked- room mystery I typically use it to refer to stories which feature a seemingly impossible crime, so a crime which appears to be physically impossible for anyone to have committed.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

And that's where the locked room comes into play.

Tom Mead:

Yes, for example, a murder victim found in a hermetically sealed space where there was no way that a criminal could have got in or out. But I use it more as an umbrella term for any crime story where the puzzle is not only who done it but how. So effectively it's the who done it and it's the how done it. I suppose the key thing about the locked-room mystery as a sub-genre is that by its nature, it's very complex and it's very demanding for the reader because inevitably there's an element of the game of playing a mind game with the reader and encouraging them to play along, to sort of buy into the mystery and to attempt to solve it before the fictional detective.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

And how does this differ from a closed circle mystery?

Tom Mead:

So effectively, the closed circle mystery refers more broadly to the who done it, where you have a so-called closed circle of suspects. For instance, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express would be an example of a closed circle mystery where there isn't that element of physical impossibility. It doesn't seem as though it would be impossible for anyone to commit this crime. There's often overlap between the two, but I think that the locked-room mystery is distinct in that, while it has a lot of the same features as the closed circle mystery, that sense of the physically impossible and also an element of the seemingly uncanny or supernatural adds a different layer to the puzzle than you find in the conventional who done it?

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

I think they're fun, but I was wondering while I was reading your book, The Murder Wheel, you must have a lot of pre-planning and outlining to do prior to actually starting to write the novel, because of the intricacies of the who done it and the layout and what needs to be where within the story to make it work.

Tom Mead:

Yes, for me there are basically two different approaches that I can take, and this book, The Murder Wheel, is a kind of combination of them both. But it will either be a situation where I come up with a gimmick or effectively the solution to a trick that I want to use in a mystery, and it's a case of working out how that comes into play. Or it's coming up with the mystery first, coming up with the unanswered question and looking at ways in which that problem could be resolved. This particular book that there are elements of both of those approaches in the writing of it, but to me that's all part of the fun of it, really just throwing these ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks to begin with, and then, as it goes, you're creating these links, you're seeing everything kind of fit together and it's a very satisfying process.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

Like putting a puzzle together, I'm sure. I would love it if you could read the first two pages of The Murder Wheel, and then we'll follow your reading with a short discussion about your character, Edmund Ibbs.

Tom Mead:

Certainly, I've just got a copy to hand here. Right, chapter one. Can you solve the Ferris Wheel Murder Case? It began with the book. If not for the book, the rest of it would not have happened. At least that's what Ibbs told himself after the fact. But truthfully, the whole hideous thing, every single facet of the case, slotted together so neatly that it was like an immaculately timed sleight- of- hand trick. The quickness of the hand deceives the eye, but at the same time it had the kind of mad, surreal logic that is typically found in the most lucid and frenetic of fever dreams. Ibbs did not believe in magic, and yet the macabre and bloody comedy of errors that occurred at the pomegranate theatre that night could not have unfurled more perfectly if it had been planned and executed by some invisible hellion. A puckish trickster, mocking his misfortune at every turn. That was Friday, September 16, 1938, the day the gods played their wickedest trip on Edmund Ibbs. But first: the book.

Tom Mead:

The morning began, promisingly enough, a rap on the door of his quarters. He was lodging in upstairs rooms in Chancery Lane, not far from the Inns of Court in central London. Though he had not yet reached his 30th birthday, he'd completed his legal studies the previous summer and was now a full-fledged solicitor. Like all greenhorns, he was the object of his colleagues' blade-edged wit and frequently found himself lumbered with heaps of the most tedious paperwork and monotonous administrative duties. But he didn't let it bother him. In fact, he considered it to be a rite of passage. No doubt they too had gone through it in their time, and now it was his turn.

Tom Mead:

At the door was the elderly porter Lancaster; stout and stolid as a pint of Guinness. He was holding a parcel. Morning, Mr Ibbs, sir. How do, Lancaster? Got something for me? Book of some description, sir. Ibbs took it, feeling its heft on his palm. He had scarcely said a cheery goodbye and closed the door again b

Tom Mead:

The scraps drifted lazily to the floor as he examined the book by the window. Its embossed title caught the light: The Master of Manipulation. He could almost feel the book's talismanic power rippling through his fingers and up the length of his arms like a tangible electrical charge. But it was just a book, he reminded himself. Mere words on paper. What he was actually experiencing was an adrenaline surge, the excitement and anticipation bubbling over. Ever since he first heard about the Master of Manipulation, Ibbs knew that he simply had to have a copy. It was not the sort of item a regular bookseller would stock, but he had a man in Maryleb one who tracked down the mort outr titles for him and who had been only too willing to source a copy the day after it was published.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

Thank you, Tom.

Tom Mead:

My pleasure.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

OK, so you've set the stage. You've given us the year, which is this fabulous golden age of mystery. You've given us a great introduction to Edmund Ibbs, who I love, but I'd love to know where he came from, who or what inspired Edmund Ibbs?

Tom Mead:

Yeah, that's a great question. It's funny how readers have responded to Ibbs as a character, because to me obviously the main focus is Specter, the fictional detective. But it's been a pleasant surprise how people have latched on to this younger character, this sort of naive, plucky young hero. He I suppose, fits that kind of archetype which is there throughout golden age mystery, this kind of young adventurer type. Like me, he's got a love of stage magic. So there are certainly elements of my own personality and my own inquisitiveness about things, I think. But also he's a kind of necessary contrast, if you like, with Specter as a detective, because Specter is a very kind of assured presence in the narrative. So to inject an element of uncertainty and jeopardy into the plot, I thought it was necessary to have another character who was central to the story but who was essentially a novice in this world of impossible crime and theatricality and deception and mystery. So he's essentially the lens through which the reader sees the events unfold, if you like.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

And you talk about magic. What is it about stage magic that intrigues you? Is it the history, the psychology, how the audience is fooled? All of the above?

Tom Mead:

Yeah, definitely all of the above really. I mean in terms of the history of magic, I enjoy reading works about the way that stage illusion has evolved over the centuries, and I have a particular interest in Victorian illusionists because that was the era when the real kind of stage spectacles came into their own. It's the era when gimmicks like Pepper's Ghost, for example, became so prevalent in theater and just changed the way that stage illusion as an art form was perceived by the public, if you like. But in terms of the psychology as well, I mean I enjoy reading about the theory of magic and the way that it is practiced by professionals. I mean, I'm not a magician myself, but I am fascinated by the way that magicians control the perceptions of their audience, and I think that those principles can be readily applied to mystery writing as well. I think there are a lot of crossovers between the two in principle, because in both instances you're effectively talking about a lone performer, whether it's the magician or the mystery writer who is trying to put one over on an audience, and the methods in both instances are surprisingly similar.

Tom Mead:

I would say I also have an interest in the neurological aspect of it, so I am a huge admirer of the work of Oliver Sacks, who you probably know was a very great writer but also a neurologist who wrote very readable pop science works, if you like, about different brain injuries and the the way that they affected our perception of the world. His work is kind of a gateway into that. That world of which parts of the brain control which aspects of our perception. There was a recent book published in, I think, 2010, called Sleight of Mind, which is a favorite of mine, and it involves dissecting magic tricks and examining how they work on the brain of an audience member and examining where the gaps in our perception are exploited by magicians. And I think that is so relevant in the process of coming up with ah, an effective mystery, because you are essentially placing all the clues in front of the reader but at the same time you're defying them to spot where the trick lies. So really it's .

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

And I'll make sure to put the link to the interview you did with Otto Penzler in the show notes, because you talk about stage magic and I think that will be fun for our listeners to hear. Your books are set in the golden age of mystery pre-World War II England, and I too love that era, and I enjoyed the style of your writing, in the language. In particular, your use of words such as dawdle, and phrases like, slipped him five bob, and so it begins. Does this come from your love of reading authors such as Agatha Christie, Clayton, Rawson, and Ellery Queen, and does historic language come into your research?

Tom Mead:

Absolutely, the terms of phrase and the certain descriptions that are definitely suggested by my reading of the classics. Ah, often it's not an entirely conscious process, it's a kind of mode of expression that I sort of lapse into because I read so many books from that period. It's easily the era that I read the most. I have got quite a collection of classic murder mystery novels, and when I'm writing that's the kind of thing that I will read, just to kind of to try and latch on to the habitual terms of phrase and the way that ideas and images are expressed. In terms of research, I also read things like court reports, newspaper crime reporting, and the like, which also provides an interesting kind of bedrock for the way that I express the narrative and the way that the prose and the sentences are constructed.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

And I think it's so important when you are writing historical fiction to immerse yourself in that time, because when you, as a writer, infuse your pages with intricate details about fabric or the feel of fabrics, the scents and the sounds of that particular era, you can't help but plunge the reader into your story, into that period. And, as you said, reading newspapers from that era is a fantastic way to help you understand the language of that time. You did a great job in your book and it really draws the reader in.

Tom Mead:

Thank you, that's very kind of you to say. It means a lot, because that is something that I take a lot of time. It's, ah, it's quite a hoary old line, but writing is an art but also a craft that comes with practice. So I'm a big believer in, you know, editing and re-editing and things like that, and trimming sentences and all that kind of thing. And it does fascinate me seeing how the work evolves as I'm cutting and what have you. So, thank you.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

Do you have a favourite part of the writing process?

Tom Mead:

My favourite parts of the writing process are those that come at the very beginning and those at the very end. So it's the plotting, the early stages of the plotting, when you're piecing it together and it's very much like you're seeing how things slot together. And then it's the very end, when you're making those final, final edits and you're seeing a finished work for the first time. And there is a moment where you're reading something for the umpteenth time and you're thinking, yes, this is a finished piece now and I just love it. It's great.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

Yes, it's just fun putting it all together and seeing how it begins and ends and all the yummy stuff in the middle, a bit like eating a pie! Kind of in the same vein as the language, I found that while I was reading The Murder Wheel, I became sidetracked, looking up information, and I was surprised to find when fingerprinting was first used to solve murders. Do you enjoy the research related to writing historical fiction and do you research before you begin writing or go back and forth during the writing process?

Tom Mead:

Yeah, that's another great question because there are different schools of thought on it. Of course, I am someone who is very much led by the story. Wr iters that I've spoken to will dive into their research first and then develop their narrative around that, whereas I tend to do the inverse. I'll come up with the story first and my research will fit around around that. Um, uh, there's no exact science to it, but for me, because the locked room mystery is so plot driven, I think it's important to focus on that in the first instance. Um, and then uh, I mean, I do have a fascination with real life unsolved mysteries, and various macabre tidbits here and there that I have great fun peppering throughout the book. Um, but a lot of that is secondary to the main drive of the story, if you like.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

And Tom, can you share your publishing story from your first finished manuscript to finding an agent and landing a publishing deal with The Mysterious Press? Otto Penzler from The Mysterious Press and The Mysterious Bookshop was on the show a few months ago and I admire what he's doing to support the mystery fiction genre.

Tom Mead:

Certainly, yes, it's um, I understand a fairly unorthodox one from people I've spoken to. Everything's happened the wrong way around, if you like. I started off writing short stories, uh, several of which feature Joseph Spector, my retired magician, turned detective, and again, they were very much pastiches of the Golden Age. They were tributes to the writers that I love and they were my um, uh, my kind of contribution to the locked room genre, if you like. It was me trying to come up with new ideas and new, uh, new ways of exploring the locked room. But um, uh, my first book, Death And The Conjurer, uh, and the, the second one, actually the murder wheel, they were both written during 2020.

Tom Mead:

So during the COVID lockdowns, as many people did, I uh, I uh channeled my energy into uh, into creative projects, um, so that these were my first attempts at full length novels. It had always been in my mind to write um, a locked room mystery novel, because obviously it's what I love to read. It's again my attempt to kind of contribute something new to uh, to generate a bit of interest in the genre that I particularly relate to. But uh, my my first interaction with Mysterious Press was actually, um, a short story of mine called Heat Wave, which was not a locked room mystery. It was actually a pastiche of Ross McDonald, so it was more of a noirish type of piece. Uh, it was published in an anthology here in the UK from an independent publisher called Flametree Press, and uh, it was uh selected by Lee Child for his Best Mysteries anthology that he was editing for Mysterious. So the first interaction I had with Mysterious was Otto emailing me to ask if he could uh reproduce that story in um in the Best Mysteries collection. Um and uh, I suppose it's a bit ironic because, though I admire the genre a lot, I don't claim to know a lot about it, or even, you know, I don't write much in that genre.

Tom Mead:

Uh, locked rooms have always been my thing. It was very much a one-off, but it put me in touch with Otto Penzler, who I know shares my uh particular passion for that uh puzzle, mystery, the, the Golden Age, the locked rooms. His multi-author collection that he's edited, the uh The Black Lizard Book of Locked Room Mysteries is uh one of my absolute favourites. It's got everybody in there, all of the greatest locked room mystery writers. So having that communication with him, really it just gave me a bit of a confidence boost, just to email him out of the blue and say you know, I have written a locked room mystery novel, would you be interested in reading it?

Tom Mead:

So I didn't have an agent or anything at that point. It was very much a case of thinking you know, what have I got to lose? All I really expected, if anything, was perhaps some constructive feedback. But so you obviously, you can imagine what, what a delight it was when he was so enthusiastic about that first book and gave me a two book contract for Mysterious. But it did mean, of course, that the books come out in America before the UK and obviously I'm based in the UK. So it's, like, I say, quite an unorthodox situation with the book coming out in the US and me seeing photos of people in the US with the stacks of copies of the book before it's available here. And it's interesting and it certainly you know, it takes some getting used to, but I love it and it's so good that the book has found publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. MANDY JACKSON_BEVERLY: And did Otto edit the book for you?

Tom Mead:

TOM MEAD: He did, yes, he edited the first two books, both Death And The Conjuror and The Murder Wheel were edited by Otto, and obviously he's got such a wealth of experience and knowledge and he knows, he knew, so many of the people you know, people like Cristiana Brand, who I love as a writer, he knew personally and things like that.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

It sounds like you're both the perfect fit. When we were talking earlier, before the interview started, I did tell you how much I love your covers, and I do want to say that again on air. They are fabulous. Now, before we go, I have one last question. What are you reading?

Tom Mead:

Well, I'm actually on a short story kick at the moment. I'm dipping into various things. I'm rereading Borges Ficciones and I'm reading Edward D Hoch, the collection Funeral in the Fog, which is published by Crippen and Landru. So it's a collection of stories with his, with his sleuth, Simon Ark, who was a big influence on the characterisation of Joseph Spector in the early days, in the way that he kind of, he seems to materialise almost supernaturally. You know he's, he's got a certain mystique about him. Another example would be Agatha Christie's, Mysterious Mr Quinn. And alongside those I'm reading Robert van Gulik, the, the Dutch author, and his collection Judge Dee at Work. They are set in in ancient China, but they are murder mysteries in the golden age of Tang.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

Well they all sound fascinating, thank you. Tom, I wish you all the best of luck with The the Murder Wheel, and it's been lovely chatting with you, thank Thank you.

Tom Mead:

My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Mandy. Lovely to talk to you.

Mandy Jackson-Beverly:

You've been listening to my conversation with Tom Mead about his new novel, The Murder Wheel. To find out more about the bookshop podcast, go to the bookshoppodcast. com and make sure to subscribe and leave a review wherever you listen to the show. You can also follow me at Mandy Jackson Beverly on Twitter, instagram and Facebook and on YouTube at the bookshop podcast. If you have a favourite indie bookshop that you'd like to suggest we have on the podcast, I'd love to hear from you via the contact form at the bookshoppodcast. com. The Bookshop Podcast is written and produced by me, Mandy Jackson Beverly, theme music provided by Brian Beverly, executive assistant to Mandy, Adrienne Odtohan, and graphic design by Francis Farala. Thanks for listening and I'll see you next time.

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