Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

A magician is discovered dead, strangled and placed spread-eagle on a pentagram, in a room where all the doors and windows are locked from the inside. When another magician turns up murdered, in the same way…and also in a locked room, and the suspects include an escape artist, a medium, a ventriloquist, and a magician’s assistant, what choice do the police have but to call in an expert?

‘I don’t want you to think I’m telling you how to run your business, but – you don’t do any parlor tricks yourself do you? As a hobby?’

‘No. Aren’t there enough magicians around here now?’

‘That’s just it. There are far too many. And I’d suggest getting in one more. The cure this time might be a hair of the dog that’s chewing us.'”

In his first novel Clayton Rawson introduces The Great Merlini, who uses his knowledge of the art of magic, and its practitioners, to make sense of the clues and apprehend a murderer.

Impossible locked room murders, unbreakable alibis, and suspects who make their livings by pulling the wool over your eyes…it all makes for a baffling puzzle that is pure fun for the reader to try and figure out. Having a group of suspects made up of magicians allows for a great deal of diversion and red herrings, but Rawson plays fair with the clues, even providing the key to the solution up front. But I will admit that I did have a problem with one bit of hocus pocus that is part of the solution (sorry, no spoilers here!).

Rawson does well in bringing together a diverse group of characters. Some of the names alone are worth it…Zelma LaClair, Eugene Tarot, Ching Wong Fu. As there are so many characters, Rawson does little to go beyond physical description. But, while the depth of his characterization is fairly shallow, his descriptions of them were sometimes so clear that they were like portraits. One such is the initial victim, Dr. Cesare Sabbat. We never actually meet him, but he is brought to life in Rawson’s description.

He was tall and had Cassius’ lean and hungry look. His slicked dark hair came forward to a sharp V above his high forehead, and his eyes, wet and shiny black like an insect’s, peered coldly from a face that seemed carved from soap”

Reminiscent of Doctor Nicola…not the cat.

And regarding the aforementioned Zelma LaClair…

Zelma LaClair came in, walking towards us with considerable self-assurance and rather more sway amidships that was necessary. She was the luscious type, the smoldering sort that the out-of-town buyers who frequent La Rumba would get hot about.”

Lady of Burlesque anyone?

Rawson also writes some very wry dialogue, most apparent in the sarcastic, “now I’ve seen it everything”, Inspector Homer Gavigan.

‘What are you looking for, Brady?’ Gavigan asked brusquely. ‘Chimney swallows?'”

But for all that, as much as I enjoyed the mystery (which really was baffling and had me fooled) and the characters, I still have issues. Too much of the dialogue is given over to Merlini as the encyclopedia of magic, aspects of the occult, and their sources. In the middle of one such soliloquy (and only a quarter of the way into the story) I felt the same as Gavigan.

‘I wish you’d get on with it,’ Gavigan said, his impatience beginning to overflow. ‘I’m after a murderer, not a book thief. I don’t see that this literary chat is getting us anywhere.'”

The veritable glut of lecturing threw the pacing off, for me, and made the story run on too long…much too long…a whole two chapters too long. But, this being Rawson’s first novel, knowing he was still working things out, and the fact that I really enjoyed the mystery and trying to figure it out, I’ll give him a pass on this one. I’m looking forward to more of The Great Merlin and already on the lookout for a copy of Footprints on the Ceiling.

My Judgment – 4/5

Prior Rulings – Ben @ The Green Capsule, JJ @ The Invisible Event

10 thoughts on “Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

  1. Spot on about Merlini’s endless hinting at solutions without ever saying anything definite. That’s a problem in a lot of detective fiction (not spelling out the sleuth’s theories), but it can get unbearable with Merlini. I lost track of how many times Gavigan frowned, grimaced, and sighed with exasperation. A lot of DfaTH is marvelous fun though. It’s also a master class in closing each chapter with a riddle, making you want to read the next chapter straight away.

    1. Like “‘Alright Hawkshaw,’ Gavigan said, ‘but you won’t convince me you’re not an amateur detective until you stop being so cryptic.’” While reading chapters 22 & 23 I kept saying “just tell me who it is already!” And the last chapter “why are you still talking?”. But, I shouldn’t complain because I enjoyed it so!
      P.S. It took me a while to figure out that Hawkshaw was a character from a cartoon strip

    1. For a second I was a little taken aback to see Sinister John on someone else’s site — thankfully there are captions and context…!

      My impression of Rawson is that he was better in the short form than the long. I did very much enjoy this one — and, in fact, recently bought the American Crime Classics reissues you picture up top — but No Coffin for the Corpse is a red hot mess (I’m yet to track down the other two). The Great Merlini short story collection has some absolute gems in it, though, were you inclined to look a bit deeper into Rawson’s work. And he wrote a handful of novellas, too, featuring Don Diavolo as the main character.

      Happy hunting!

      1. As I was reading the description I immediately saw that picture in my mind (I must admit it has always kind of creeped me out…but it suits John’s blog perfectly).

        Based on your comments I’ll have to look into the short stories. I was hoping to find an American GAD writer that I could follow more closely (other than JDC). Other than Kelley Roos my luck with that hasn’t been very good. Hard-boiled, noir, gangster s, etc., not my style.

    2. I know! As soon as I read Rawson’s description that picture popped into my head and I had to use it. It really fits JN’s site…but hopefully not him personally 🤔

  2. Pingback: Clayton Rawson (1906 – 1971) – A Crime is Afoot

  3. Pingback: My Book Notes: Death from a Top Hat, 1938 (The Great Merlini #1) by Clayton Rawson – A Crime is Afoot

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