A fun collection of period short mysteries…
Way back in the early twentieth century, Gelett Burgess wrote a series of short mysteries featuring “Astro the Seer”. Astro ostensibly uses his metaphysical and extrasensory talents, such as reading palms, calculating astrological profiles, and feeling magnetic vibrations, to help his clients. But he doesn’t really rely on the occult. Instead, behind the incense and the show, he is a logical thinker and a keen observer of small clues, and together with his assistant, Valeska, he researches and reasons his way through his cases. And along the way, he develops a reputation, not just as a seer, but as a “solver of inexplicable problems”.
The Master of Mysteries contains all twenty-four Astro cases, and they are a lot of fun. As with any collection, some are a bit more enjoyable than others, but I liked all of them, and was more than a little sad when I came to the end and realized there were no more. Of course, after more than a century, the stories read like historical mysteries. But human nature hasn’t changed that much (if at all!), and they still work. One case, for example, revolves around determining the biological parentage of a couple of potential heirs, which of course would not be an issue now, but was impossible then. But The Heir to Soothoid is still enjoyable today simply for the clever way Astro and Valeska manage to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion.
If there is anything that seemed a little off in the collection, it’s the hint of Pygmalion in Astro’s and Valeska’s relationship. I would have had a lot of trouble accepting that in a modern collection but was able to suspend my distaste given the time frame in which Burgess was writing. And the final story, which finally resolves their relationship, was my least favorite of the bunch. But even with that minor issue, The Master of Mysteries is well worth reading.
A couple of notes: First, there’s a fictional “biography” of Astro at the end which is kind of fun, and only contains one minor spoiler. So if you want to know a bit more about Astro, you can skip to the end and read that before starting the stories. And second, I really appreciated the footnotes, which mostly provided interesting historical background, but also helped out with terms that have simply fallen out of modern-day usage, such as “mull” – which is a soft, sheer muslin, if you were wondering! Finally, please keep in mind that I try to flight “star-flation” a bit, and a four-star review for me is a solid recommendation to read this book. And last, but not least, my thanks to Poisoned Pen Press and NetGalley for my review copy.