book review

Black Aura by John Sladek

When I first became interested in detective fiction, I had difficulty finding blogs to foster my newfound passion. Perhaps I was entering the wrong words into Google, but most of the sites I encountered only wrote about modern fiction and not the sort I was reading. In December of last year, I was busy working on my second book, when I noticed a (for me) huge uptick in sales. Curious, I searched online and found theinvisibleevent.com. JJ had reviewed my book and a lot of people had consequently bought it. Even more than the lovely review, I enjoyed finding a fellow impossible crime enthusiast who provided a lot of reasons to buy a lot of books.

Since then, I’ve discovered a treasure trove of mystery blogs, which has led to me discovering (too) many books. I’d say I’ve bought at least one book based on a recommendation from every site I’ve visited, usually a lot more. There’s no shortage of passion with murder mystery fans and they make everything sound so delicious.

However, there is one blogger that has made me spend more money than any other and that is Tomcat over at Beneath the Stains of TIme. Besides his love of impossible crime, he seems to have an obsession with uncovering every nook and cranny of detective fiction. Enthusiasm drips from his writing. I often joke that I have to limit my visits to his site or else I’d go broke. That’s only half in jest. Both my bookshelf and my TBR pile are filled with his recommendations.

Recently, I went to his list of favorite locked room mysteries. I resigned myself to choose one and Black Aura was the winner. Sladek’s Invisible Green is one of my favorite books so this seemed like a no-brainer.

Thackeray Phin is a Kensington-based, American sleuth in desperate need of a case. He often fantasizes about being an old-time detective, reacting to all the cliches with aplomb. There’s nothing cliche about the case he actually lands. Something is afoul at the Aetheric Mandala Society where a group of spiritualists are still reeling from the mu…death of a former member. Phin joins the club to investigate spiritualism. He gets two impossible murders instead.

The balance of tone within BA is a testament to Sladek’s economy of prose and his supremely sly sense of humor. I often found myself laughing two lines later at the matter-of-fact witticisms that had come before. So much humor in detective fiction weighs about a ton and lands with an appropriate thud. The humor here is so light and fresh (my favorite is a member who scares a spirit half to life) yet there is equal parts menace. The spectre of murder is always present and (knowing Sladek’s gifts for obfuscation) creates a real uneasiness in the reader.

The Problem(s): One of the members of the society levitates in midair. A group of people witness it through the window. He then falls to his death. Two other characters enter rooms and vanish completely. One of them…well I’d better not say. There’s also a curse, a live burial, and psychic poisoning.

The Investigation: The relationship between Phin and Gaylord is one of the funniest parts of the novel. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to the sleuth/police scenes more. They’re both smart and they enjoy each other’s company, trading barbs and theories equally. One trope of detective fiction is the seemingly unimportant clue brought to the fore. Sladek’s particularly good at this. There are many chances for the reader is follow small clues–especially one mentioned offhand at the end of a certain chapter.

The Solution: Not all of the solutions are fantastic. This isn’t so much a problem though because they don’t all need to be. Many mysteries (I’m thinking of Halter especially) have one bland solution that is only there to push the story, adding bulk to the clever parts of the mystery. All in all, the revelatory final chapter (much like Invisible Green) is enormously satisfying.

So, is it better than IG? I can’t quite put it that high. I’ve got lots of nostalgic love for IG. I’d put it right up there though. Witty, clever, entertaining–what’s not to love?

6 thoughts on “Black Aura by John Sladek”

  1. I, too, came to this on TomCat’s recommendation, and while I did enjoy it, I found Invisible Green — which I read after BA — far superior. But, this is certainly not without merits: the vanishing from the funeral parlour is inspired, the levitation trick nicely realised (if bloody difficult to pull off…), and, yeah, the badinage between Phin and Gaylord is a highlight of all the mayhem.

    But, man, that disappearance from the locked bathroom will always, always vex me.

    Sladek wrote two other Phin short stories, which I sort of talk about here — he was a real loss to the impossible crime when he decided to write in it no more. Just thinking of what we may have lost always makes me feel a little glum.

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  2. The disappearance from the bathroom is not a satisfying solution at all. It didn’t bother me because Sladek doesn’t reveal it in any ta-da kind of way. Instead, it’s perfectly reasonable within the hidden narrative. And while it’s true that we have invested rather a lot into that disappearance, its existence gets us to some glorious places.

    I felt so stupid for not seeing the funeral parlor trick. That’s a great example of conjuring an impossibility out of nothing. Literally two establishing lines from the funeral director and the trick is complete.

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    1. Yeah, I can’t deny that you have a point about the low-key nature of the reveal. I guess it just bugs me because I’ve never been a fan of that sort of impossibility explanation, and I was a relative newbie to the subgenre when I read this and so had high hopes that something genius was about to unfold in front of me. Alas, not to be.

      I still think it affects how I view this book overall. however, so it might be interesting to reread it knowing what’s coming to see how it stands up. Watch this space…

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  3. When I saw the title of your review appear on my blog roll, I knew you would a) like it b) end it with praising Invisible Green, because that has become a rule at this point. I’m seriously considering rereading Black Aura and Invisible Green next year, but I doubt the latter will overtake the former as one of my all-time favorite impossible crime novels. How can you not marvel at that wonderfully place, tell-all clue to the levitation-trick?

    The two short stories with Phin are great! Particularly the lesser-known, short-short story, “It Takes Your Breath Away,” is impressive considering it only runs for three pages. Sladek also wrote a parody of the genre, entitled “The Locked Room,” which is another short-short with a story-within-a-story structure and nicely done, comedic solution to the locked room problem. As JJ said, Sladek abandoning the detective story was a huge blow to the genre, because he could have been the modern successor of John Dickson Carr!

    And if you’re interested, Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek collects eight inverted crime short-shorts and “You Have a Friend at Fengrove National” is a small gemstone.

    Thank you for all the kind words and undeserved praise, but it’s always gratifying to hear my fanboying has helped fellow fans feed their addiction.

    Besides his love of impossible crime, he seems to have an obsession with uncovering every nook and cranny of detective fiction.

    I’d like to believe my exploration of the genre is comparable to an archaeological dig, but, in reality, I’m just going over it with a metal detector and finding all kinds of things, which can range from worthless scrap metal to nuggets of gold or just item of historical interest.

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  4. I still haven’t read Invisible Green – it’s one of the “classics” that I’m saving for when I’m in a rut. I enjoyed Black Aura, but seem to have read it at a time where it didn’t quite click for me. Perhaps it was the solution to that one impossibility that rubbed me in a wrong way. I was looking for a stellar solution to everything, and wasn’t able to appreciate at the time how such a device fits into the magician’s bag of tricks for the wider illusion that’s being created.

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