Book Review: The Murder Wheel by Tom Mead

Sleuthing stage magician Joseph Spector (first met in debut mystery Death and the Conjurer) returns to investigate a baffling series of impossible crimes. Featuring a puzzling plot with a clever solution, The Murder Wheel by Tom Mead will be enjoyed by all fans of classic crime fiction. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Solicitor Edmund Ibbs has just taken on the brief of a lifetime. After his superior at work falls ill, he’s put in charge of gathering information in the sensational case of the Crown versus Carla Dean. Mrs. Dean has been accused of killing her husband but staunchly proclaims she had nothing to do with his murder, despite the overwhelming evidence against her.

As a defense attorney who also happens to be a fan of magic shows, Ibbs knows that perhaps his most important duty is to build a compelling narrative that will persuade the jury of his client’s innocence:

Much like a magic trick, the facts in a court case are of less significance than what an audience can be made to believe. If there was any way, any way at all, that somebody other than Mrs. Carla Dean could have killed her husband on top of that Ferris wheel, then it was Ibbs’s duty to pursue every possible angle. Anything whatsoever that might exonerate this young woman.

The facts of the case are seemingly open and shut. Carla and her banker husband, Dominic, had gone to the fair for a nice evening out. While they were at the top of the Ferris wheel, Dominic was shot in the stomach. Carla screamed for them to be let off, but to little avail: her husband died shortly after reaching the ground. The gun belonged to Dominic, and the only fingerprints on it were Carla’s. She swears that her prints are there only because she picked the gun up from the Ferris wheel compartment’s floor in a panic.

Inspector George Flint of Scotland Yard was put in charge of the case and swiftly had Carla arrested and charged with murder. She’s adamant in her story, however, and Ibbs, being no small aficionado of the puzzling and bizarre, is inclined to believe her. But who then could have murdered Dominic, and how?

Ibbs’ investigations lead him to the fairgrounds to interview a witness, and later to Scotland Yard itself. No closer to the truth after a full day of work, he heads to the Pomegranate Theatre to relax with a long-anticipated magic show. Famed illusionist “Professor” Paolini is staging a highly publicized comeback, featuring his signature creative variations on several already fiendishly clever tricks. Ibbs is looking forward to taking his mind off the case for a few hours with a night of entertaining magic.

To Ibbs’ and the rest of the audience’s delight, Paolini is as spectacular as expected, introducing each illusion with patter that is both scholarly and entertaining. It’s as he’s describing the lethal history of the famed Bullet Catch trick, though, that a strange feeling comes over Ibbs:

The list of conjurers shot dead onstage was well-populated, and seemed to be growing longer all the time. Ibbs began to sweat. If you had asked him at that moment, he would have told you it was the sheer anticipation and anxiety in watching a magician handed a loaded revolver. But if you asked him afterward, when it was all over, he would have told you that he had experienced a premonition. That he knew something was going to happen that night.

And indeed, during an illusion involving a crate and an animated suit of armor, instead of an ancient knight brought back to life emerging from the box, one of the witnesses Ibbs had interviewed earlier in the day falls out from it, stone dead. The theatre erupts in chaos, but Ibbs keeps his head and quickly moves to secure the stage. He cannot believe that this death is a coincidence and suspects that the witness was silenced to stop him from testifying for Carla Dean. 

Inspector Flint is called in, but an even more intelligent mind is closer at hand. Like many of his peers in magic, Joseph Spector came to the show to see what new tricks Paolini had up his sleeve. Though retired, the old music hall conjuror has used his keen wit to help Flint solve at least one previous murder and is not averse to helping out with another. With any luck, Ibbs will be able to consult with Spector regarding Dominic’s death, too. But a ruthless killer is still lurking in the wings, and won’t hesitate to make Ibbs’ life a living nightmare as he relentlessly pursues the truth.

Tom Mead has written a murder mystery featuring not one but two locked rooms, with such finesse as to make this book feel virtually indistinguishable from any written during the Golden Age of detective mysteries. From the 1930s setting to the Ellery Queen-esque challenge issued directly to the reader, this is both a delightful throwback and a satisfying modern-day successor to the intellectual puzzles of that classic era. Spector is a compelling sleuth, and we’ll hopefully see more of Ibbs too in future installments of Spector’s eponymous series.

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