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by Dolores Gordon-Smith
Constable, June 2009
288 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 1845299361

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

AS IF BY MAGIC poses one of those difficult reviewer's problems. In this case it is that the book's opening chapter, the situation it describes and the mystery it sets up are the very best that the book has to offer. This is not to imply that the rest of the book is bad, but I think it would be fair to say they are not quite up to the standard of the opening.

Set in 1923 the book is the third in the Jack Haldean series. Haldean is an ex-fighter pilot who makes his living by journalism and mystery writing, with a part-time line in detection. His police side-kick or helper is Bill Rackham. Haldean is not what one would call a complex character - he is of the strong-jawed, clean living hero type who just happens to have an excellent investigative intelligence. Indeed characterisation is at something of a premium here. The good guys and gals are very obviously such, as are the bad guys and gals. This comes as something of a disadvantage as far as the ultimate mystery is concerned as it is pretty obvious who the criminals are. Now Gordon-Smith to some extent circumvents this problem by managing for at least half the book to keep driving the mystery forward by the unravelling of side-issues and complexities established by the excellence of the opening situation. However it has to be admitted that the denouement is something of a let-down in terms of any really surprising revelations.

In fact it is not so much the who but the how which is the book's central concern. Now this is a perfectly valid but generally secondary facet of the Golden Age writing, which any book set in the inter-war years inevitably brings to mind and sets up as comparison. As I have written before I consider setting books in this period to be a mistake for precisely this reason (unless of course you are writing revisionist deconstructions) because the comparisons to Christie, Marsh, Carr, Allingham, Innes et al are never going to work to your advantage. Here Gordon-Smith's concentration on mechanics works somewhat in her favour because this is an aspect of Golden Age writing that is perhaps less well-known than the brilliance of the guess-the-murderer games for which those writers and above all Christie are so well-remembered and venerated. But despite the fact that Gordon-Smith handles these mechanics with considerable competence and a certain enjoyable humour, I am not sure that this concentration on the how really substitutes for a genuine mystery or surprise as to the who.

As far as other aspects of the book - the descriptive, sociological and historical writing - are concerned there is little to say as they are scanty and tend to the well-known. There are a few interesting facts about the aviation industry in the early 1920's but even that brings to mind Allingham's great FASHION IN SHROUDS which was similarly concerned with an aviation firm and again invidious comparisons spring to mind. I have concentrated on weaknesses, many of which are the unfortunate consequence of setting a book in this period; let me end by reiterating the strengths. AS IF BY MAGIC has a terrific opening chapter which immediately draws the reader in and sets up all sorts of possibilities. The first two thirds of the book at least have considerable narrative drive and Gordon-Smith marshals the various sub-plots with aplomb. The final concentration on how rather than who is interesting and well-handled. No, the standard of the opening chapter is not maintained and the book is no masterpiece, but I have read many worse Golden Age imitators.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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