1966’s Too Many Magicians is Randall Garrett’s1 sole novel-length Lord Darcy work. The Lord Darcy works were alternate-history fantasy cozy police procedurals.
In a world in which Richard the Lion-Hearted lived thirteen years longer, a world in which magic was codified in the 14th century, a world in which the Angevin Empire is a great power, Lord Darcy serves as Chief Investigator for the Duke of Normandy, solving crimes with remarkable powers of observation and deduction. His latest case may prove a difficult one, as the primary suspect appears to be his dutiful sorcerer associate, Master Sean O’Lochlainn.
The facts are straightforward and baffling. On hearing Master Sir James Zwinge cry out “Master Sean! Help!,” witnesses within earshot forced their way into Sir James’ room. Within the securely locked room, they found Sir James stabbed to death.
The windows being as secure as the door, there appears to be no way for a conventional assassin to have killed Sir James and then escaped from the locked room. Magic seems the only explanation.
By the time Lord Darcy arrives on the scene, Master Sean has been detained on the orders of the Marquis of London. Ostensibly, this is because Sir James’ last cry appears to implicate Master Sean and because Master Sean had a motive, if small. In fact, the morbidly obese Marquis does not actually think Master Sean is the killer. Master Sean is merely the means by which Lord Darcy will be provoked into solving the case for free.
If Sir James was killed through some magical means and if Master Sean is innocent, then all that remains is to find the sorcerer responsible. Sorcerers being uncommon, this would normally be straightforward. Alas, the hotel in which Sir James met his demise is hosting the Triennial Convention of Healers and Sorcerers. There is an abundance of suspects.
Were the case not complicated enough, there are geopolitical implications. Sir James led a secret life as spymaster Zed. One of Zed’s double-agents, Goodman Georges Barbour, was recently murdered before he could expose the man trying to sell military secret to the dastardly Polish Hegemony. Are the two murders connected or are they simply a misleading coincidence?
And what of Tia Einzig? Is she the victim of the Polish Hegemony she claims to be or is she a black magician able to murder a man in a locked room without a hotel full of sorcerers noticing? Whatever Tia Einzig’s role, Lord Darcy is faced with too many magicians.
Most fen would agree that Baen Books has appalling taste in cover art. In the specific case of Too Many Magicians, even Baen must have been hard-pressed to commission a cover as disappointing as most of the covers that have adorned Garrett’s novel over the course of its existence. These covers are featured in the banner immediately below this sentence.
Still, points for Baen’s lady-eating cabbage, which appears nowhere in the narrative.
I have a lot of questions about the setting, but I suspect Garrett only worked out the bits relevant to the stories he wanted to tell. He’s no longer with us, so my questions will never be answered.
Readers may be boggled at the enthusiasm Garrett demonstrates for the Plantagenets. In his setting, their reign lasted until the 1960s, when he started publishing Darcy stories. There’s nothing in the stories to suggest that the dynasty will vanish any time soon. Garret also seems think highly of monarchy unconstrained by Magna Carta (which never happened) and parliament. The little people seem to be happy with their lot. Implausible? Well, even now there are a lot of would-be forelock-tuggers out there.
No sensible killer would ever set out to present investigators with anything as attention-getting as a murdered corpse in a room from which egress and ingress appear impossible2. In this specific case, circumstances forced the killer’s hand.
Garrett seems to have had two goals here. The first involved inserting as many coy references to other mysteries3as he possibly could. For example, the Marquis is a thinly disguised Nero Wolfe and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe is Archie Goodwin. Tia is motivated by concern for her uncle from the island of Man, Neapeler Einzig: Einzig could be translated as “Solo”. Indeed, Garrett lifts one twist directly from one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels. Which novel would be a tremendous spoiler.
Garrett’s second goal seems to have been to construct a plausible locked room mystery, one filled with red herrings, complications, and a surprising number of characters given the novel’s brevity. In this setting, “a wizard did it” would be a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. Lord Darcy has to produce a reasonable result based on tangible evidence, rather than having Master Sean gaze into a convenient crystal ball. To rely entirely on magic for the answer would be cheating, which is likely why the protagonist is Lord Darcy, who lacks even a jot of magical talent, and not Master Sean.
As I reread this book, I noticed that some of Garrett’s slights of hand are more obvious than they were on my first reading … but of course I knew where the book was going this time.
Fans of old-time cozies may enjoy this book, if only to see how many of Garrett’s easter eggs they can spot.
Too Many Magicians is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I did not find Too Many Magicians at either Amazon UK or Book Depository (SF Gateway does publish Garrett but not the Lord Darcy works).
1: Following Garrett’s demise, Michael Kurland wrote two Lord Darcy novels: Ten Little Wizards (1988) and A Study in Sorcery (1989).
2: There’s an 87th Precinct novel, whose title I have long since forgotten, that features a locked room murder mystery. The investigating detective is delighted, because setting up such a contrived scenario offers many opportunities to leave damning evidence. He does not have to work all that hard to spot the killer.
3: Characters were also named after real people (Tuckerized): Sir James Zwinge is named for the James Randi, whose birth name was Randall James Hamilton Zwinge.