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TOM MEAD in the Spotlight with Tony R. Cox

Written by Tony R. Cox

What was it about your early life and upbringing in a fairly small, Midlands city that persuaded you to become an author?

Well I was surrounded by readers growing up, and storytelling was always very important to me when I was young. I was also fascinated by books themselves as physical objects; specifically our collection of Fontana paperbacks of Agatha Christie novels, with their superb cover artwork. It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to write, and specifically to write books. And as I began to read more widely, my taste developed and I found myself continually drawn back to the mystery genre.

You graduated from university in Creative Writing. What role did the course and qualification play in you becoming a writer and then finding an agent and a publisher?

I loved studying Creative Writing, and it certainly gave me a well-rounded introduction to some of the key principles and skills you need in order to write professionally. It was also very nice to feel like I was part of a ‘writing community’ for the first time. However, my journey to publication was highly unorthodox – I wrote drafts of both Death and the Conjuror and The Murder Wheel during the COVID lockdowns, and submitted direct to Otto Penzler at Mysterious Press, purely because I was an admirer of Otto’s locked-room mystery anthologies and his interest in the Golden Age. And I didn’t actually find an agent until after I had signed the contract for Death and the Conjuror and The Murder Wheel. All very unusual!

Your writing is immersed in clear passions based around the 1930s. What element takes precedence in your ‘make-up’ as an author: mystery, crime, magic or the theatre?

To me, the main thing is the mystery – the twists and turns. My starting point is the plot, the creation of the mystery, and the atmosphere and characters all develop from that. The magic and theatricality are stylistic choices. All in the execution, you might say.

You acknowledge the work of great mystery writers from the ‘Golden Age’ of mystery novels. Is there a single one who has been the most influential?

Yes – I can tell you without hesitation that it’s John Dickson Carr. Carr was the so-called “master of the locked-room mystery,” and his books have stimulated my imagination like no others. He was so innovative, as well as being a remarkably entertaining, eminently readable writer. I love Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Christianna Brand, Edmund Crispin, Nicholas Blake, Clayton Rawson, and so many others, but to me Carr will always have the edge. 

Your books show an immense depth of reading and research. Do you ever wonder what ‘authorities’ would surmise if they saw your internet browsing record?

Ha! This is a common concern among the crime writing community. It’s true, I do spend an inordinate amount of time researching fun, weird ways to murder people – the more outlandish the better! Fortunately, I don’t think many of them would work in real life. While they’re not impossible, they arehighly improbable. 

Did you ever wish to become a magician or actor yourself?

Honestly, not really. I know a number of performers, and I love spending time with them, but I could never do it myself. I prefer to confine my theatrical leanings to the world of fiction. 

Every chapter or your full-length novels is peppered with possible hints that may be clues for the reader. Is this a specific ‘tool’ of your writing?

Absolutely, I’m a huge fan of the idea that mystery novels are essentially psychological games between writer and reader. That’s something that dates back to the 1920s and ’30s (and even further), but I think the puzzle mystery never really goes out of style. When I started writing about Joseph Spector, I wanted to tell the kind of story that I enjoyed reading, and since I love mysteries that “play fair” with the reader by hiding clues in plain sight, it made sense to adopt that same formula.

Death and the Conjuror and The Murder Wheel have both received rave reviews and you have been tirelessly busy travelling the country’s bookshops and other venues. Where do you find time for writing?

I love doing events because there’s nothing quite like meeting readers face-to-face and sharing my love of locked-room mysteries and my enthusiasm for Golden Age crime. But you’re right that the travelling takes a lot of time! In an ideal world, I’d like to split my time down the middle, and do 50% events and 50% writing. It’s a difficult balance, but I’ll get there.

What’s next?

The third Joseph Spector mystery, Cabaret Macabre, is scheduled for publication in the US next July and the UK next August. I’ve had a lot of fun with this one; it’s a sort of reimagining of the Jacobean play The Revenger’s Tragedy, transformed into a locked-room mystery. Spector and Flint are back, this time tackling the case of the troubled Drury family, who are being picked off one by one by a seemingly phantom killer. 

Read Tony’s Review of The Murder Wheel

Tom Mead

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