Monday, September 11, 2023


My first novel, Death and the Conjuror, was published in July of 2022. It was everything I had wanted it to be: a vintage-style locked-room mystery set in 1930s London, featuring retired magician and amateur detective Joseph Spector - a character I’ve used in several short stories for publications like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I was delighted with the response the book received from readers and reviewers, but it left me with an interesting dilemma that every writer must face at some point: where to go from here? 

I am positively obsessed with Golden Age mystery fiction: the work of writers like John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Helen McCloy, and – of course – Agatha Christie. One factor they have in common is that they wrote successful long-running series. Since I make a point of paying tribute to all those authors in my work, and I look on them as role models, it made sense to try and turn the standalone Spector novel into a series as well. 
Rewind two years: summer of 2020. The UK, where I live, was in lockdown. I was stuck at home, working part-time and writing on a freelance basis. But my passion was (and still is) the murder mystery; I love the puzzles, I love the atmosphere, I love the period detail, I love the characters. Basically, I love everything about that “Golden Age” period that covers the 1920s through the 1930s and some of the ‘40s. It was during that very strange time that I decided to channel my love of the genre into the creation of something new, which eventually ended up as Death and the Conjuror. 

But I didn’t stop there. I tend to adopt a “less is more” approach to writing; the books are relatively short, but densely packed with characters, ideas and incident. This means I inevitably have a few leftovers when I’m done. That’s why, when Death and the Conjuror was complete (and before I’d even thought about finding a publisher), I immediately got to work on what would eventually become its sequel, the second book in the Joseph Spector mystery series, The Murder Wheel. I finished the second book before the end of 2020, and before I knew it I had a series on my hands. 

When Death and the Conjuror was accepted for publication in summer 2021, it gave me a major confidence boost. So, I got to work on book three. I didn’t have a contract for it or anything like that, it was written purely for my own entertainment. The book is still going through its final editorial stages, and won’t be published until summer of 2024, but I can tell you that it’s called Cabaret Macabre

So now I’m right back where I started: where do I go from here? 

You might think it would be frustrating, after spending so much time and energy on a book, to suddenly find oneself staring at a blank canvas once again. Personally, though, I love it. It’s an irresistible challenge, and in some ways the earliest stages are the most fun: that’s when I’m assembling the building blocks, before I get caught up in the details. 

When it comes to plotting, I’ve tried two different approaches – it’s tough to say which I prefer, though both have their respective merits. The first begins with the puzzle, the unanswered question. Like for instance: how does a murdered corpse appear onstage during a magic act in front of a packed auditorium? That’s one of the scenarios that presents itself in my new novel The Murder Wheel, and when I came up with it I knew that it would inevitably form a major part of the plot. But how could it have happened? If I didn’t know, how could my sleuth Joseph Spector be expected to untangle the problem? 

The alternative approach is the inverse of the first. It involves coming up with a fun, clever or amusing gimmick that could be employed in a seemingly impossible situation. This is where my research in the world of magic comes into play. I’ve written a lot in the past about how I like to adapt real-life illusions and turn them into devices for mystery plots. My short story “The Indian Rope Trick” would be the most obvious example of this, because the titular illusion becomes intrinsic to a killer’s complicated scheme. 

Essentially, some plots oblige me to come up with a solution to fit the puzzle, while others require the puzzle to fit the solution. But of course, no two plots are the same, and inevitably the finished work is a kind of mish-mash of different approaches. But it’s a method that seems to work – although even after writing three books I can’t claim to understand how it works. 

Maybe that’s why the process of it, the rise and fall, is still such a thrill to me. It’s the reason I keep coming back, and the reason I wouldn’t give up my job for anything in the world. I’m trying to give readers a fun, challenging mystery – and the only way to do that is to challenge myself first. 


Tom Mead is a mystery author based in Derby, UK. The first novel in his Joseph Spector series, Death and the Conjuror, was named one of the best mysteries of 2022 by Publishers Weekly and nominated for Debut Crime Novel of the Year at the UK's Capital Crime Awards. The sequel, The Murder Wheel, was published in July 2023. A third in the series, Cabaret Macabre, will be published in 2024. Tom's short fiction has appeared in various publications including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Lee Child.

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