I 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.