Black Aura by John Sladek
Originally published in 1974
Thackery Phin #1
Followed by Invisible Green
Thackery Phin, the delightfully eccentric American University philosopher turned detective, is attracted to the headquarters of a spiritualistic group and the beginning of his second case.
When a rock star is killed after trying to levitate from a fourth story window, and another member disappears behind a locked door while demonstrating astral projection, Phin begins to suspect that the members of the society may be involved in something far blacker than seances.
The curse of an Egyptian amulet, a dark seance parlor, lurking death in an orgone box, psychic poison and live burial–Sladek’s brainteaser fairly creeps with fiendish happenings.
Black Aura is the first of two impossible crime novels written by John Sladek, a writer better known for his efforts in the realm of speculative fiction. The books feature his sleuth Thackery Phin, a philosopher who dropped out from a think tank to turn sleuth, advertising in the newspapers for cases promising ‘Anything irrational considered’. When he learns of an occult group called the Aetheric Mandala Society he is intrigued and after hearing about a supposed cursed amulet connected with the death of a young member of the community he decides to investigate further.
The main focus of the novel however are a series of impossible events that take place once Phin arrives at the rooms in Caversham Gardens. The first impossibility is that the father of the young man who died vanishes from within a locked lavatory. Then shortly afterwards another member of the community, a rock musician, is witnessed levitating feet away from the building through one of the fourth floor windows before he appears to fall, dying impaled on the spiked railings below. Finally, and this one is not listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders, a member of the order disappears after entering a building which is observed on all sides.
Three impossibilities is a generous helping for any mystery novel and while I would agree with other reviewers that they are not all of equal quality, each is treated pretty seriously within the text being described carefully and each plays fairly with the reader. As interesting as the two disappearances are, the most striking impossibility is the apparent feat of astral projection. The image of a mediating rock musician hovering in the air is quite wonderfully imaginative and certainly feels very of its moment and Sladek builds up to that reveal carefully, building a strong sense of atmosphere and tension as we wait for that feat to take place. What I think caps it off so nicely is that Sladek takes great care to carefully outline the details of the scene and follows the moment with a very thorough search of the building, looking for many of the tools that the reader may assume would have been used to bring about this amazing feat.
The other two puzzles, both inexplicable disappearances, are a little less eye-catching though each offers its points of interest. One has a stronger solution than the other but given that is not clear until the end of the novel the reader will likely not perceive a difference in the quality of the setup – just the satisfaction of the answers given.
Individually these three puzzles are interesting and entertaining but what makes Black Aura a special read is the exploration of the ways in which they are connected. The element that seems to bind all three strange events together is that the victims were each in the possession of that strange scarab beetle amulet. This is a lovely device that helps add to the book’s strange sense of atmosphere and its occult themes as some suggest that there may be a curse of some kind on the amulet that brings doom to its owners – a wonderful hook for a mystery which is used thoughtfully here.
In the process of trying to find the answers to these strange occurrences, Phin gets to know each of the members of the commune as well as some of their followers. They are predictably quite a striking and colorful bunch which certainly helps to make the community feel like a vibrant and bustling one and also to keep their roles within the group straight. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these characters were not as broadly drawn as they first appear and that Sladek, while clearly cynical about their practices, does take the time to explore why they are part of the movement and reflect on why those beliefs have a power for them.
The issue I have with the characterization of members of the group came in the form of a retired air pilot who is, we quickly learn, a white supremacist and identified directly as such in the text. It should be said that this is presented as something rather idiotic that the character believes and voices rather than anything admirable so I think it is pretty clear that Sladek is not condoning those views. On the other hand, it does feel rather odd to see hatred for an entire race of people treated as a lightly comical character trait rather than something more insidious though this book is hardly unique for handling it in that way – it has shades of Alf Garnet or Archie Bunker.
Sladek’s writing style is wonderfully flippant and witty, reminding me a little of the tiny bit of Edmund Crispin I have read so far. One favorite moment was when Phin is asked about his method of solving crimes and he confesses that he doesn’t have one – ‘I usually just hope the killer blurts out his guilt in front of witnesses’. A very cute remarkable that instantly won me over to him.
Similarly I really enjoyed the little moments where Phin appears to acknowledge that he is a character in a detective story, effectively breaking the fourth wall. The first time that happens – where we are told that an event that normally happens at a particular juncture in a detective story hasn’t happened – it feels a little odd but I quickly got used to it and rather anticipated those little reflections by the end. It is wonderfully self-conscious and seems to fit the tone and themes of the work well, even if it means that readers are unlikely to take Phin seriously. Like Crispin’s Gervase Fen though I am pretty sure we’re not meant to.
The piece builds very nicely with Sladek spacing out the clues and discoveries well ensuring that the story never seems to stagnate. The final few chapters are particularly striking with the author finding a pretty dramatic way to bring his story to a close and I have to say that I think the manner in which the killer is caught is quite brilliant. The explanation Sladek provides is convincing and the only disappointment is that one of the two inexplicable disappearances is a little diminished for its explanation. Personally though I feel that is offset but my greater appreciation for the skill involved in the crafting of the other and my general delight about how well Sladek connects the three events together in his description of what happened.
Overall then I was delighted with my first experience of Sladek’s work, even though I know that the tragedy is that not much else remains. While the book feels very of its period in terms of the setting it conjures and the people we encounter, the careful approach to crafting the puzzles is pure golden age. It makes for a truly striking read and one I am glad I made the effort to seek out.
Now to try and track down a copy of Invisible Green…
The Verdict: A really strong story with two excellent impossibilities, this is an often whimsical and fourth wall-breaking delight.
Ben @ The Green Capsule writes a very fair review of this title praising Sladek’s wit.