Originally published in 2022
The pestilence known as the Red Death had devastated Prince Prospero’s lands, and so he retired to his isolated castle with several hundred friends to outwait the blight in safety. Here, they distracted themselves from the horror outside the walls with decadent revelry and voluptuous self-indulgence.
Now, the handful of loyal men who remain realise that they have merely exchanged one danger for another: a masked figure robed in scarlet stalks the shadowy halls, launching a violent attack on the prince before apparently evaporating in front of witnesses.
When one of their number is found slain in a room sealed on the inside, Sir William Collingwood vows to unmask the murderer in their midst. But what sense can be made of the apparently unexplainable deaths that follow? Why commit murder in the middle of a plague? And how do you catch a killer who can seemingly walk through walls and vanish into thin air?
Jim Noy is someone who knows their impossible crime stories. For those who are unfamiliar with Jim, he has blogged for a number of years at The Invisible Event where he writes interesting and engaging articles, not only about works by familiar names like John Dickson Carr but also many lesser-known authors working in the sub-genre. He’s hosted the Golden Age crime podcast In GAD We Trust, appeared on the Shedunnit podcast to talk about locked room mysteries and presented on the topic at Bodies from the Library conference. He is, in short, something of an authority on the impossible crime mystery, boasting an extensive knowledge of what has been done already. When I learned that he had written his own impossible crime novel I was excited to see what he had come up with.
The Red Death Murders takes place in an isolated castle during an outbreak of a terrible pestilence which has swept across the land. Prince Prospero has gathered hundreds of nobles to engage in revels and debauchery while the plague spreads outside the castle gates. As time has worn on their number has dwindled until, at the start of this story, just a handful of individuals remain. They soon learn that their numbers have been depleted once again when the body of one of the prince’s most respected retainers is found dead in a locked privy. Deep slits on each wrist suggest suicide but Sir William Collingwood has his doubts, believing it to be murder instead. Before he can get to the bottom of that murder however further killings occur…
Perhaps the best place to start in discussing the book itself is in the material that inspired it. Edgar Allan Poe is often credited as being a founding father of detective fiction so Noy’s choice to utilize elements from The Masque of the Red Death, one of his most iconic works from outside the genre, and expand upon them to tell his own impossible crime story feels quite inspired. It also worked particularly well for this reader as that is probably my favorite of Poe’s works and it doesn’t hurt that the concepts at the heart of the story feel particularly relevant given the events of the past couple of years.
Noy does a superb job of explaining the history and the politics of the fictional realm in which the story is set and helping us understand enough about the disease to know how it may be transmitted. While all of the action in the novel takes place within the confines of the castle, he manages to convey the idea that there is a land beyond its walls. This has the interesting double effect of creating a contrast between the characters we are observing and those outside while also reminding us that the events within the castle could have consequences far beyond it.
While the population of the castle has dwindled at the point at which we join the tale, I was pleased by the dimensionality of those inhabiting it. Each of the characters we encounter possesses a strong and distinct personality, making it easy to recall who they are and how they feel about one another. I felt that there were some interesting tensions within the group and I enjoyed how my understanding of them evolved over the course of the book.
The nature of the threat faced by those within the castle means that almost all of the characters will ultimately appear to take active roles in trying to stop further murders. There are however a couple of figures in particular who we soon come to see as central to that investigation – Sir William Collingwood and Thomas, one of the few servants remaining. The pair come to form a sort of double-act with Sir William taking the lead and Thomas acting as support. I enjoyed this structure quite a lot and I appreciated that Noy makes Thomas naive because of youth and inexperience rather than stupid, allowing him to make some insightful observations of his own during the investigation.
Thomas is the point of identification for the reader. Noy makes good use of this character as a mechanism to ask questions and receive information, particularly related to the history of the world and the various characters, while also making him appealing. My feelings toward the character grew stronger as the book went on and really sucked me into the action towards the end of the book as I desperately wanted him to survive.
Turning to the crimes, Noy offers up a variety of interesting impossibilities and problems for the reader to solve. These seem to build and accelerate as we near the end of the book, creating a sense that some of the characters may be facing some very real dangers if they cannot work out what has been going on, adding to the excitement.
The first murder in the privy makes for an intriguing and rather unusual opening problem. While there is an element of the sealing of that space that was a little challenging to visualize, I loved the way the circumstances of the death are carefully teased apart and its logical contradictions are exposed. I was even more intrigued when a rather important piece of evidence disappears, adding to the intrigue of the situation. While some of the theorizing about how the door could have been sealed with a murder victim inside are quite detailed and I found it a little challenging to visualize, the final explanation of how and why the crime took place struck me as quite ingenious.
My favorite of the other problems involves a poisoning during which everyone appears to have drunk from the same cup. Though a simpler problem, I think it is laid out well and I enjoyed its solution which struck me as quite clever and quite logical given the facts.
Noy tells his story well, finding a good balance between providing detail of the investigation and new incident to keep the action moving forward. I think information is rationed and dispensed at a good, steady pace and I appreciated that the reader is given a lot of material to work with, even if it takes a while to fully understand how our clues relate to each other.
Did I guess the answer? No, I’m afraid that I was completely outsmarted at every turn but I was delighted to realize looking back at the book that I had the information but simply failed to piece it together properly. That solution is clever and satisfying, not simply on a technical level but on a character and emotional level as well.
Overall I am happy to say that I had a really entertaining time with The Red Death Murders. I think Noy expands on the short story really well, not only creating an interesting backdrop for a murder story but filling it with a compelling cast of characters. It all works rather well and while I think there was a little scope to trim down the false solutions towards the end of the novel, I was pleasantly surprised at how neatly and satisfyingly it is all tied up in the end.
The Verdict: This strong, if rather ambitious, first impossible crime novels showcases the author’s appreciation for the subgenre and ingenuity. The setting is realized well and I found the overall solution both creative and satisfying. Fans of the impossible crime subgenre will find this well worth the read!