At its outset, this début work is very much a tale of the early 1970s. It starts with a report in a London newspaper about an odd encounter between “pop singer” Steve Sonday and a junky friend of his. Then, in its first narrated scene, a self-styled detective strolls through the countercultural exotica of Portobello Road. (“Want to score, man?” a fellow stroller says to him.) Yet the detective bears the evocatively retro name of Thackeray Phin, and the sequence of peculiar events that he proceeds to investigate is a throwback to a much different time—the 1930s, when detective fiction was rife with gentleman amateur sleuths who routinely stumbled upon “miracle crime” cases that only they could solve.
Here, the ostensible miracles take place at a Kensington townhouse that serves as the headquarters of the Aetherian Mandala Society, an occult group led by the renowned medium Mrs. Viola Webb. In one instance, a society member walks into a bathroom at the house and disappears; subsequent inquiries indicate that the room’s door was watched, and its lone window locked, during the period before and after he entered it. The discovery of his dead body a short while later—he had been strangled, and left in an outdoor shed—only compounds the mystery. Another strange occurrence unfolds when Sonday, the pop star, affects to levitate above the back garden of the house as other Aetherians observe him from a second-story window. He pulls off that trick, but no sooner has he done so than something goes awry, and he plunges to his death. What enabled Sonday to appear as if he were walking on air is a real puzzle (a search for ropes and mirrors turns up nothing), and so is the matter of whether someone intentionally caused his fall. Adding to all of this puzzlement is an Egyptian curio, shaped like a scarab, that each victim was carrying with him when he died. Did both men succumb to an ancient curse that some aggrieved pharaoh had placed upon the relic?
More or less as a lark, meanwhile, Phin has joined the society, and he’s on hand to tease out the tangible circumstances and prosaically human secrets that lie behind these apparently otherworldly phenomena. An American expatriate, Phin prowls about London in search of knotty problems to unravel, and his most distinguishing trait (aside from a penchant for Edwardian attire) is a jaunty rationalism. That quality, at any rate, proves to hold greater explanatory power than the alternative to which it serves in these pages as a foil—the theory, put forth by Mrs. Webb, that a “black aura” hovers over those whom fate has marked for death.
Sladek, when he wrote this book, was himself a fairly recent American emigrant to London. In that respect, and in his literary sensibility as well, he qualifies as a throwback to John Dickson Carr. Like Carr, he seems to look upon Ye Olde England as a timeless realm of romance and fantasy—the kind of place where two impossible crimes can easily occur, if not before breakfast, then certainly within a 24-hour period. The plot here doesn’t reach the heights of Carrian cleverness or complexity, but it’s one that Carr or any other impossible-crime chronicler of the 1930s might have been proud to fashion. And Sladek, having witnessed the modern spectacle of Portobello Road, writes with a satiric worldliness that departs from the relatively ingenuous tone that earlier mystery writers brought to writing about the everyday miracle that is London.
[ADDENDUM: While casting about for links to use in this write-up, I discovered that there actually exists an Aetherius Society, founded in 1955 and based in London. It devotes itself to exploring all manner of paranormal possibilities, and presumably Sladek knew about and drew inspiration from it.]