Conjurer’s Coffin by Guy Cullingford

1953, the back streets of Soho, and Jessie Milk has found herself a job as a receptionist at the deceptively named Bellevue hotel, a rundown establishment occupied mostly by entertainers employed at the local theatres in variety shows. One such group of guests consists of a magician, his wife and his more-attractive-than-his-wife assistant. So that’s going to end well…

The monotony of the job is lifted when Lulu, the dog belonging to the owner of the hotel, vanishes without trace, seemingly from inside a room with no exits. Luckily, the dog reappears soon, admittedly in the West End, but soon one of the human guests suffers the same fate. Jessie finds herself allied with a store detective who also lives in the Bellevue, and, convinced that murder has been committed, sets out to track down a killer, on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

I can’t recall why I picked this one up from Abebooks a while ago. I think I must have read a gushing review of it and the word Conjurer caught my eye, as I’m a bit of a sucker for mysteries involving magicians. Anyway, for whatever reason, I finally decided it was time to read it. You may have noticed that with the Bodies From The Library conference this month – tomorrow, at time of writing, I’m having a bit of a Golden Age month and while this isn’t one of my Twenty Books Of Summer, it seemed to grab my eye for some reason. Probably my natural habit of promising to read something and then never following up on that promise. See, for example, my long-snoozing Ellery Queen bibliography.

Also, this is a bit of a digression as well, as I’m writing this before I’ve finished reading the book. But I thought this would be an interesting experiment and there’s another good reason for this.

In some vague ways, there are parallels between this and The Incredible Crime, a book with probably the best chance of winning the most-inappropriate-title award. Well, it’s that or, from the same author, The Gobblecock Mystery, but that’s for an entirely different reason. But it features a plucky heroine, an ill-defined crime and a relatively slow pace, with not a vast amount of crime-related developments in the first third.

The difference is that this a damn fine piece of work. One of the most readable Golden Age-ish (OK, it’s from the early 1950s) books that I’ve read in a long time, and while I do prefer to have my corpse presented to me by the end of the opening chapter, I’m having serious trouble putting this book down. The characters seem real, you care about what happens to Jessie, I haven’t a clue what’s going on – is the disappearance supposed to be an impossible crime, for example? – and I’m utterly hooked.

I’m loathe to even mention the dodgy Chinese waiter who makes Doctor Who’s The Talons Of Weng-Chiang look like an exercise in diplomacy – normally I would tear into a writer who thinks a Chinese waiter would pronounce “Chicken, Mushrooms” as (brace yourself) “Clicking! Muslims!” (oh dear) but there’s so much good going on here, that I’ll just roll my eyes and move on.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through now, and something else has happened to move the plot forward. I’ll report back when I’ve finished it. But at the moment, it’s clearly Highly Recommended.

While you wait for my final thoughts, a word about the author. Guy Cullingford was the pseudonym of Constance Lindsay Taylor (1907-2000), who wrote twelve mystery novels between 1948 and 1991 (but only two after 1968), including the wonderfully titled If Wishes Were Hearses. Apparently her first book was published under her own name, but the publishers persuaded her to adopt the pseudonym for the rest, which is a bit odd as female writers have tended to have a longer shelf-life. Apparently her best book is Post Mortem. That’s according to The Murder Room, who have released these as ebooks. But you can certainly pick up affordable second hand paperback copies of this one over.

And after that interval, back to the review!

And I’ve finished the book, and the ending is extremely satisfying, including avoiding what I thought was the obvious solution. It’s a charming story, a clever mystery – yup, it’s still Highly Recommended.

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7 comments

  1. Not only intriguing, but readily available?! Count me in! Sounds like a really god time, and is unlikely to be a book I’d come across in the normal order of things. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I shall scale my TBB and perch this title precariously atop it…

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    • If you’d made that comment an hour ago, I’d have brought it along today. But given your massive Green Penguin collection, you might have it stashed away and not even realise it…

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  2. Please correct the spelling of the author’s first name – it’s Constance not “Cosntance”. I’ll look out for the book.

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  3. Intriguing new author to look up. Also liked the different review structure. It is interesting sometimes noting down initial reactions, as well comments after you’ve finished the book as a whole. Do you think you’ll repeat the experiment?

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