Black Aura – John Sladek (1974)

BlackAuraIf you asked me what comes to mind when someone says “essential locked room mysteries” I’d rattle off an answer that I suspect would be familiar to many others – Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher, Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson, Invisible Green by John Sladek, and a whole batch of John Dickson Carr novels.  The Carr novels would be of my own opinion; the rest are more of a recitation of canonical titles, most stuck in my mind by this list compiled by John Pugmire.

I’m not going to debate the viability of that list here.  Nor should I.  I’ve possessed enough fortitude to abstain from burning through the contents, withholding the enjoyment of the titles for future days.  Instead, I’ll call attention to Invisible Green by John Sladek.  The novel sounds like an impossible crime enthusiasts fantasies come to life – members of a detective book club are picked off one by one under impossible circumstances.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that another book by Sladek – Black Aura – is held in higher regard by many.  Both books are somewhat tricky to find on the cheap, so when I stumbled upon Black Aura for a steal, I was quick to snatch it up.

I’m glad I did.  Sladek dishes out the impossibilities in Black Aura – two separate locked room disappearances, plus a man who levitates in the air four stories above the ground in front of an audience before plunging to his death.  Toss in a plot revolving around debunking fake mystics, and we have a novel that strikes a remarkable similarity to Rim of the Pit.

Well, not quite.  Published in 1974, Black Aura is without question a post-GAD impossible crime novel.  Sladek provides all of the classic tropes, and yet the story unfolds in a world of vegetarians and communes.  Amateur detective Thackery Phin, around whom the tale revolves, is an unusual soul, and feels in a sense as if he had stepped out of the golden age into an unrecognizable world.

Phin is an American, living in London, and seems to have some sort of disposable income that allows him to follow his fancies.  His hobby appears to be debunking fake mystics, and this pastime soon leads him to join a spiritual commune so that he can… well, just kind of toy with the members.  The group is made up of an odd assortment of characters – a priest, a pop star, a racist, elderly twins, as well as their psychic leader.

The early chapters follow Phin as he feels out the group and tries to gain insights into how the paranormal activities during the group’s seances are pulled off.  I was hoping for an early debunking, a la Rim of the Pit, but instead we’re just treated to the satirical thoughts in Phin’s head.  The plot quickly picks up pace when one member of the group walks into a bathroom, never to emerge, despite the only door being under direct observation.

Saldek fully acknowledges that he’s telling a locked room mystery tale, nearly breaking the fourth wall through Phin’s heavy irony, and toying with the reader by flouting GAD conventions.

“For God’s sake, belt up and listen,” Beeker finally gasped.  “I checked on the death certificate for Maurice Webb, like you asked, and I couldn’t find one.  So I started asking around.  The word is, he – “

At this exact moment, no shot rang out, causing him to crumple wordlessly to the floor, while Phin sprang to the window to see a strange figure in a Burberry hurrying away.  Instead, Beeker went on to finish his sentence.

A second impossibility soon follows the locked room disappearance, and I feel this is the puzzle which gives the book its reputation.  The pop star locks himself in a room to perform an astral projection meditation.  He soon manifests in front of the other members of the group, hovering in the air outside of a fourth story window.  As the witness’s stare in disbelief, the pop star seemingly floats in front of them, before suddenly falling to his death.  Suffice to say, Sladek took no easy route on this one, and it soon becomes clear that no rope or secret platform/pole was used to perform the trick.

I feel extremely lucky to get two strong impossibilities in a single novel, but Sladek has more to give.  We’re treated to another inexplicable disappearance, this time when a man walks into a room at a funeral home and vanishes, despite all exits being watched.  Each of the three impossibilities is given adequate attention, rather than being glossed over, so if you’re a puzzle lover, this one’s for you.  I can’t say that all three puzzles play out to their full potential, but the levitation trick is something that I’d love to see pulled off in real life.

The steady rate of impossibilities combined with a series of seance tricks draws an obvious comparison to Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit.  The two books most notably diverge in terms of atmosphere.  Where Talbot’s snow swept tale verged on horror, Black Aura is thoroughly tongue in cheek and never creates a sense of danger.  Rim of the Pit also provided more of a rapid fire barrage of puzzles and discovery, and I think it wins out on that alone.  Plus it has that true air of the golden age, even if it is a bit pulpy.

Sladek definitely caught my interest with Black Aura.  I’ll be searching out Invisible Green, as well as Maps – a collection of short stories that are Sladek’s only other contributions to the mystery genre.  Although the author focused his career on writing science fiction, it’s clear that he knew his way around a locked room.

So, does Black Aura deserve it’s spot on Pugmire’s list?  I can’t quite say because I don’t have 100 other titles to stick it behind.  There’s about 20 John Dickson Carr books that I’d put in front of it, and everything that I’ve read by Brand has been better.  Still, the impossibilities in Black Aura are strong and Sladek’s sense of humor and wit provide a welcome diversity to the genre.

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10 thoughts on “Black Aura – John Sladek (1974)”

  1. This is a very good book indeed, if perhaps a little slow to get going, but the disappearance from the bathroom irks the hell outta me. But then the disappearance from the funeral parlour is one of the best-worked of its type I think I’ve ever read…so swings/roundabouts.

    It’s probably also worth being aware that I’m in the minority of the opinion that Invisible Green is a far superior book to this one — the impossibilities there are simply awesome, and make it only sadder that Sladek stopped writing in the genre thereafter. And if you’re interested in his short mystery fiction from Maps, I have a couple of posts over at my place.

    His SF is also very good. If you like that kind of thing.

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    1. Yeah, the bathroom disappearance was pretty frustrating, although I can see what Sladek was going for in terms of how it played into the solution. And, with Black Aura being somewhat satirical, I suppose it’s the ultimate joke on the reader…

      I’m happy to hear that you consider Invisible Green to be superior – now I just need to track down a copy.

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      1. Yeah, good luck with that; I have two, because I snap them up when I find them from long and frustrating experience of trying to find…well, most of the stuff I read these days.

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  2. I’ve to respectfully disagree with JJ. Black Aura is superior to Invisible Green and should have been on the list instead. One of the best impossible crime novels from the post-WWII era. A great lost to the genre that he decided to stop writing detective stories.

    Sladek has two more (short) locked room stories to his name, “By an Unknown Hand,” which can be found in Maps alongside with the delightful “It Takes Your Breath Away” and eight inverted detective stories. The second impossible crime story is an outright, multi-layered parody of the genre, simply titled “The Locked Room,” and was collected in Keep the Giraffe Burning. All of these are well worth a read.

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