● Black Aura. Walker, hardcover, 1979; paperback, 1983. UK editions: Jonathan Cape, hc, 1974; Panther, pb, 1975.

JOHN SLADEK Thackeray Phin

    ● Invisible Green. Walker, hardcover, 1979; paperback, 1983. UK edition: Victor Gollancz, hc, 1977.

   In the excellent introduction to his Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes, Bob Adey calls John Sladek “the main, if not the sole, contender for the crown that John Dickson Carr wore for so long,” that is, the king of the impossible crime story.

   On the basis of these two books, I’d certainly agree. They are clever, ingenious problems that recall the atmosphere of the 30s, while being firmly based in the 70s.

   Sladek, like his detective Thackeray Phin, an American living in England, won the Times Of London detective story competition in 1972 with his short story ”From an Unknown Hand.” Part of his prize was a contract for a full-length novel, Black Aura, which Bob Adey says is far superior to the short story.

   Phin, a sort of deliberately eccentric private eye, is intrigued by a death involving the Aetheric Mandala Society, a sort of occult commune based in a big house in London. He manages to get himself invited to join the group and eventually solves two further deaths, a disappearance from a locked, watched lavatory, and a levitation from a fourth story window.

JOHN SLADEK Thackeray Phin

   This he does cleverly, and Sladek handles both problems with a nice bit of misdirection worthy of Carr. The characters are eccentric and well-defined, the atmosphere is suitably Carrian.

   Invisible Green, though written and published second in England, appeared first here. It concerns a planned reunion of the Seven Unravellers, an ill-assorted group of mystery fans who last met in 1940, more than thirty years earlier.

   Miss Deborah Pharoah, the only female member of the group, has planned the reunion, and it ls she who calls in Thackeray Phin when a number of petty crimes involving the colors of the spectrum (stolen violets, an orange thrown through a window, etc.) culminates in death.

   The solution is very clever and well worked out, and probably the best part of the book. I enjoyed it, but would rate it slightly below Black Aura. I do recommend both of these, and hope Sladek writes many more.

— Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Vol. 2, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1979.

Editorial Comment:   Alas, these are the only two novels in which Phin appeared. Besides the short story that Jeff mentions above, there was one other, “It Takes Your Breath Away,” printed in theatre programmes for a London play sometime in 1974. It can be found in Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek, edited by David Langford. More information can be found here.