Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett

TooManyMagiciansI first learned about Too Many Magicians when I was reading about a list of Locked Room mysteries that Ed Hoch and eight other enthusiasts had collaborated to produce in 1981 (you can read the list and a short history of how it came to be in this MysteryFile article by John Pugmire). The novel came joint-fourteenth in their rankings and its fantasy cover and title seemed to mark it out as being a little bit different from all of the other titles on the list.

Too Many Magicians is, in addition to being a locked room mystery, also a fantasy novel. It is set in the modern-day but in an alternate history in which the Plantagenet kings continue to rule an Anglo-French empire. In this universe magic exists and is pursued as a science, its use is broadly accepted, providing that the user does not perform destructive black magics. The country has a rivalry with Poland and those tensions form an important part of the background to this story.

The magical system that Garrett devises is interesting and complicated, being governed by the same sorts of laws that you would see in a science. I really enjoyed reading about the way magic is used in this world and its limitations but if this isn’t your sort of thing be aware that this is all background. While magic is used at points within the investigation to provide information, the crime itself is a traditional mystery with a physical explanation that can be worked out logically based on facts that the author establishes.

Garrett had begun writing short stories featuring his investigator Lord Darcy, Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy, in 1964 but Too Many Magicians was his only novel to feature the character. It was published in installments by Analog Magazine in 1966 before being collected into a single volume for publication in 1967. Darcy is not a magical user himself but is assisted by the Irish magician Master Sean O’Lochlainn. While this is not the first Darcy story, it is designed to give us the information we will need to understand this world and characters’ relationships to each other.

The novel opens at a Wizarding convention which Master Sean is attending to deliver an academic paper. After it is learned that he and a rival sorcerer, Sir James Zwinge, are both working on substantially similar material, the convention organizers ask them to consolidate their papers for presentation together. When Zwinge misses their appointment Sean goes to his room to discover the door locked with an enchantment by Sir James and his rival is heard calling out for help from within. By the time that they gain access to the room they discover that he is dead, murdered by a knife wound to the chest.

As I noted earlier, magic is not utilized to commit the crime but we quickly encounter a few magical considerations in our understanding of the scene. The door has been locked with an enchantment by Sir James. Only a particular key, which he possesses, can be used to gain access to the room through the door. And while levitation and unlocking spells might be performed on the windows, this process would take a number of minutes, be incredibly complicated and dangerous even for a master magician and would have had to have been enacted in the full view of the magicians gathered in the courtyard below. In short, the magic only reinforces just how locked this room is.

Darcy’s involvement in this case is initially to clear his assistant’s name when he is arrested for murder based on his rivalry and his proximity to the murder. Soon he is invited to meet with the King and is given background about the crime and how it may be related to another murder. Darcy is to find out who committed the murders and how Sir James was killed.

Arguably Darcy himself is one of the least interesting things about this book, though I think this is perhaps appropriate given the complexities of the world Garrett creates and the rules that govern it. We learn relatively little about him as a person, his tastes or background, and so we engage with him almost exclusively through his professional abilities which are considerable. One thing that is clear however is that while Darcy is not a magical user himself, he possesses a strong knowledge of the laws and mechanics of how magic operates.

The question of how the murder was accomplished is, I feel, more interesting than the one of who committed them. While I think that seasoned mystery readers will pick up on some suspicious behavior from a character, learning how they managed to commit this murder in a magically sealed space is both more complex and much more satisfying.

There are some thrilling moments on the way to that resolution, in particular a sword fight that takes place on a bridge that I felt was really effectively written to draw the reader into the action and which made good use of some elements of magic. I also found the sequences in which Darcy and Sean analyse the crime scene to be particularly interesting and I felt that they both approached it in logical, clear ways and explored a variety of possible approaches well enough to discount other solutions to the crime.

Whether you are normally a fantasy reader or not, I think Too Many Magicians is an engaging and interesting read and a great example of the locked room mystery form. The solution is quite ingenious and I really enjoyed the way the investigation is developed. I plan on seeking out the Lord Darcy short story collections to experience some of the character’s other cases soon.

19 thoughts on “Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett

  1. Good review, Aidan.

    I read (or more accurately “skimmed,” for reasons that will be clear in a minute) this one a few years back, also because it had been ranked so highly on Hoch’s list. I’m afraid that my opinions here comport more with TomCat’s than with JJ’s and yours; I simply found this book dreadfully boring. I remain astounded as to how such a great set-up could end up so dull, but then again this kind of universe would work better (with a better writer) for a full-out fantasy or thriller, rather than bringing the locked-room mystery in, kicking and screaming.

    With all that said, I agree with you about the cleverness of the central locked-room trick, and I like its variation on Carr’s original gimmick. As (I think) TomCat wrote about Jack Vance’s A Room to Die In, it’s a bad book with a good locked-room idea.

    Karl

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    1. Thanks Karl.

      This seems to be a love it or loathe it kind of read. Interesting! And now I suppose I ought to make a point of seeking out the Carr that inspired it sooner rather than later to find out just how close they are.

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  2. I’ll never cease to be amazed that Too Many Magicians made that 1981 list or that there are readers who actually liked that abomination of a novel.
    Firstly, it should have never made that list, because the locked room is only a very slight variation on a well-known John Dickson Carr novel and, secondly, the horrendous writing is clunky, which bogged down the readers with all of their my lords and my ladies. You should never use personal titles as punctuation marks every time characters are interacting with one another.
    Garrett’s sole accomplishment in Too Many Magicians is that he made an alternative universe full with wizard detectives, locked room murders and ghostly sword fighters mind-numbing dull and boring. I didn’t even care for the disguised cameos of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.
    At the time, I bought that complete Lord Darcy volume, but have yet to return to the short stories, because I get disgusted all over again everytime someone brings up Too Many Magicians.
    Long story short, Too Many Magicians is easily one of my least favorite impossible crime novels.

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    1. It is possible that I may feel similarly outraged when I read that JDC novel, though I tend not to mind reworkings – particularly when the author pays credit to his or her inspiration as is quite clearly the case here.

      With regards the writing style, there is a stiffness imposed on the text with the titles and formalities but that worked for me as a reflection of the society depicted.

      Are there any alternative mystery-fantasy (or horror or sci-fi) genre mashups you would recommend?

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      1. Are there any alternative mystery-fantasy (or horror or sci-fi) genre mashups you would recommend

        My experience is that science-fiction writers are generally much better in writing a fair play mystery hybrid. Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun are probably the most well-known examples, but I also liked Manly Wade Wellman’s Devil’s Planet and James P. Hogan’s Inherit the Stars. Granted, the latter was written as a hard science-fiction novel, however, the plot also works as mystery with a premise that’s as great and grand as its solution. So we appropriated that novel from the science-fiction genre. It’s ours now!

        Mike Resnick also wrote a series of fantasy novels about a hardboiled private-investigator who’s sucked into an imaginary world of unicorns, fairies and vampires. Stalking the Unicorn and Stalking the Dragon were fun reads.

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      2. Thanks for sharing your recommendations. I had only heard of the Asimov and Resnick books so I appreciate the chance to make my TBR pile even more intimidating!

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  3. Well, well, well, this is superbly timed — I should have something at my place on Saturday that touches on this, so you’re reading it now is especially pleasing. I really enjoy this one — the prose isn’t fooling anyone, but there’s more than enough going on to keep one entertained, and Garrett did a lot of world-building inside of his plots, which is more than is achieved in most detection/Fantasy crossovers.

    The short stories are…variable. The early ones tend to be less successful, iirc, but they do improve. One about a man impossibly jumping out of a window is nonsense of the highest order, but the one where a man is found hanged in his office despite no=one having gone in contains a trick so devious that I’d probably put it in my top 20 impossible crime short stories (if I could only remember the titles…). They’re a very, very mixed bunch, but if you’ve enjoyed this you’ll find a lot to enjoy in them.

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    1. Happy to hear that my timing was so good on this one! I learned about it when looking up possible titles for our Spoiler Warning event a few weeks ago though I didn’t think to mention it!

      Thanks for your thoughts on the short stories. As you know I am not normally a fan of short stories so I will keep your thoughts in mind if I struggle with the early ones!

      Have you read either of the authorized continuations?

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      1. I have a couple of the Kurland continuations, but have not yet got around to them. I’ve read some of Kurland’s other fiction, and I enjoy his style of writing, but with all the other books crowding for my attention I’ve not got round to those yet.

        Eventually, eventually…

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  4. …but the one where a man is found hanged in his office despite no=one having gone in contains a trick so devious that I’d probably put it in my top 20 impossible crime short stories (if I could only remember the titles…).

    I looked it up and the title of the story is “A Stretch of the Imagination.” And now I want to pull out my Lord Darcy collection to see how good the story really is. Damn you, JJ! Damn you!

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      1. Just wanted to let you know that I’ll be taking a look at “A Stretch of the Imagination,” after my next review, and it better be as good as you say it is or there’s going to be another Anglo-Dutch War!

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  5. I’ll no doubt get around to reading this one eventually, due to it’s place on the Ed Hoch list. I haven’t bothered seeking out reviews of the book so far, so this is the first one I’ve seen.

    I’m happy to hear that despite the magic, there is a well grounded and devious solution to this one. And yet……… The thing is, for me, part of the strength of an impossible crime is the fact that there is no conceivable solution to it. I struggle with this one because magic could be involved in the solution, even if it isn’t. It seems that as a reader, you’d always have it in the back of your mind that someone simply cast an unknown death spell that the author will spring on you at the end.

    I think this is a big key for why I’m not turned on to the prospect of a modern impossible crime. Even if it has a completely “legitimate” clever solution, I’d alway be wondering if it was committed remotely using a cell phone, remote control, drone, etc. Those modern technologies basically destroy the iron-clad alibi.

    GAD is where my heart is for impossible crimes in part because of the limited technology of the day. Yeah, us modern readers aren’t experts at all of the inventions that existed at the time, but we have a fairly good idea of what was and wasn’t possible.

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    1. I completely understand that reservation and I share your feelings about how unsatisfactory it can be when there is a super hi-tech solution to an impossible crime. There was a Jonathan Creek story which was ruined for me by one such solution.

      Early in this story the detection takes the time to investigate the different ways in which it seems magic may have played a part in order to exclude them and it is stated that were someone to have used ‘black magic’ to commit the crime it would be perceptible to sensitives. I happened to have already read that this was fair play so I trusted that there would be no way a spell could get through the door but I am sure I would have been more nervous about a magical solution had I not seen that.

      On Thu, Feb 8, 2018 at 11:59 AM, Mysteries Ahoy! wrote:

      >

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      1. There is also spells cast on all the rooms in the hotel where the murder is committed so its never a question that magic could have done it, but that how does someone kill a high level magician with just a the physical.

        So no need to worry Ben!

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