Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Black Aura

E: But what can that possibly have to do--?
TP: Nothing, nothing. Detectives always seize upon some insignificant detail when they're stuck
(Ernestine; Thackery Phin; p. 47)

Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek finds bookish amateur sleuth Thackery Phin up to his eyebrows in mysticism and impossibilities. Having recently put an ad in the paper peddling his talents to those in need:

AMERICAN PHILOSOPHER seeks worry. On leave in London, this drop-out from a think tank, professional logician and amateur sleuth would like a challenge. Anything irrational considered.

And, having had few takers, he decides to investigate another sort of mystery--the occult, the arcane and mystical. His attention is drawn to the Aetheric Mandala Society, a townhouse spiritual commune run by medium Viola Webb. Members include a pop star recovering from drug addiction, a doctor who is seeking the truth about his son's death a few years ago [the son was a member at the time], a scientist whose aim is to debunk the society's so-called powers, a misfit secretary to the society, and a reverend with more interest in spirits than most British religious figures. He sets out to find out what truth, if any, there is in the society's claims and winds up investigating murders.

But before he does sort it out, he has to deal with all kinds of supernatural paraphernalia: scarabs, Egyptian curses, Nostradamus, voices from the great beyond, spirit writing, etc. And the story is full of impossibilities--from the doctor who disappears from a locked bathroom, to the pop star who levitates four stories above the ground and eight feet out from the townhouse, to the reverend who walks into a funeral home's chapel and disappears leaving only his raincoat behind. Thackery is determined to get to the bottom of it and decides that one more murder is necessary...his own.

"I've got to get back to the house before it's too late." [Phin]
"Too late? Too late to prevent another killing?" [Inspector Gaylord]
"No, too late to have another killing. It's absolutely essential to have one more murder. Goodbye, Inspector." [Phin]

Fortunately, he doesn't really have to die to flush out the villain of the piece.

Considering this was written in the 1970s--long past the Golden Age--this is a very good locked room (rooms, actually) story. A very odd setting and an interestingly peculiar amateur detective. But very good. In fact, Phin's advertisement does remind me a bit of two of Christie's Golden Age series--Tommy & Tuppence's "Young Adventurers Ltd" Ad and that of Parker Pyne--in which investigators try to bring clients to them. Of course, Phin doesn't really get involved in his little mystery through the advertisement, but it is a nice throwback to the vintage era. 

I thought Sladek played his locked room tricks very nicely--though I would like to see the levitating method in action. I'm having a difficult time picturing it exactly. But that did not detract from the mystery at all. Quite an engaging novel all round. ★★★★

Nowadays, the police did not wait politely behind the arras while the amateur investigator produced his dazzling deductions. They swarmed in, lights flashing and klaxons blaring. As they no doubt saw it, anything a lone amateur could do with meerschaum and meditation, they could do so much better with twenty tiny cars filled with eighty large officers--all talking at once on the radio. (p. 60-1)

Even a spirit medium needed account books. (p. 61)

G: Don't you wear a watch?"
P: No, I'm training myself to waste time. I find  that if I can forget the days,, the minutes and hours forget themselves. [Gaylord, Phin; p. 83]

P: If Webb's alive, this really is a body-in-the-library case. By all fictional precedents, we can expect him to pop up as one of the Aetherians. Returned to blackmail someone, or to avenge some old wrong. No, that really is too much to hope for. But are you absolutely sure he vanished?
B: Of course not. All I know is what I hear, from a couple of old friends in the trade. But it's good gossip, they wouldn't kid me about that. I mean, they might tell me he was snatched off to Hell, or he vanished out of a locked room, or--
P: A locked bathroom. Or he levitated, and fell. But they wouldn't tell you something believable. They wouldn't make up a story about a man deserting his wife. [Phin, Beeker; 93]

Vintage Silver Card: Who (Vicar/Religious Figure)
Calendar of Crime: December (author's birth month)
Deaths = 3 (one poisoned, one stabbed/fell from height, one strangled)


Graham Powell said...

I liked this one a lot, and the sequel, Invisible Green, is also really good.

Bev Hankins said...


I have also read Invisible Green--I found that one first. I enjoyed it as well.