"The whole point and headache is this. Every microscopic opening in that room – the tiny little crack under the door, the keyhole, the joins of the two windows where the sashes meet – every place is sealed up as tight as a drum-head by glued paper fastened on the inside."- Sir Henry Merrivale (Carter Dickson's He Wouldn't Kill Patience, 1944)
Clayton Rawson was an illusionist, mystery writer and editor who worked in editorial positions for various magazines, such as True Detective and Master Detective, which include having served as the Managing Editor for the famous Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but he's primarily remembered as one of the Golden Era's foremost practitioners of the locked room conundrum – which were hatched by drawing on his extensive knowledge of magic, illusions and stage-effects. He even employed stage-magicians as the detective characters for both of his series: namely The Great Merlini and Don Diavolo.
One of the detective story’s greatest champion, Frederic Dannay, better known as one half of "Ellery Queen," described Rawson as "one of the topflight mystifiers in the whole bloodhound business." It's an opinion that was shared by John Dickson Carr, undisputed master of the locked room mystery, who was a friend of Rawson and on several occasions they concocted a challenge for each other – resulting in some excellent and even classic examples of the impossible crime story.
Two of those stories were collected in The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective (1979), which gathered all of the short stories and short-shorts about his most well-known and best-remembered creations. You guessed it: this flimsy introduction serves as a rickety bridge to my review of that very collection.
There are a dozen tales in this collection and the first three were originally published as reader-contest stories in EQMM, which reportedly flooded their offices with "an overwhelming response that many more prizes were awarded than the original number offered." I found them to be fairly clever for a bunch of short-shorts and comparable in nature to the nuggets of challenging crime-fiction found in Ellery Queen's Minute Mysteries and H.A. Ripley's How Good a Detective Are You? (1934).
In the first story, "The Clue of the Tattooed Man," there's an apparent impossibility clinging to the strangling death of a snake-charmer, Zelda, who was found in a hotel room on the eight floor with the only window "locked on the inside." A game of craps was being played by a group of circus performer in the corridor and they observed the only door providing an entrance or exit to the crime-scene. It was an all right story for something that short.
Interestingly to note: this short-short was not jotted down by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).
The next one, "The Clue of the Broken Legs," concerns the shooting of a theatrical producer, Jorge Lasko, who was bound to a wheelchair with two broken legs, but his murderer "vanished into thin air like a soap bubble" from a locked and guarded room. Not exactly a classic of the form and the explanation to the impossible murder is a slight variation on an old trick, but nice enough for a short-short.
I thought the plot of the third story, "The Clue of the Missing Motive," had the potential for a longer story, which deals with a gunman who took "potshots at an unidentified man in New York City’s Washington Square Park" with fatal consequences. The shots came from the direction of a house where everyone had a motive to kill one another, but they all lacked a proper motive for the murder of the man who actually got felled by a bullet.
The first actual short story from this collection, "From Another World," was the result of a sporting challenge between Rawson and Carr, in which they tried to best each other by trying to come up with the cleverest possible explanation for a locked and airtight room – the "sealed room to end all sealed rooms." Rawson opened his story in Merlini's magic supply store, "undoubtedly one of the world's strangest rooms," where the magician-detective receives a visit from his friend and narrator, Ross Harte.
Harte is also a reporter and is researching an article about extrasensory perception (ESP), psycho-kinesis (PK) and clairvoyance, which is why he stopped by Merlini on his way to the home of a millionaire. Andrew Drake has grown obsessed with psychic phenomena and wants to sink several of his millions in researching the potential power of the human mind, but wants to convince himself by setting up a séance with a medium, Rosa Rhys – who is described as one of "the greatest apport medium" currently operating in the United States.
However, when Harte arrives at the home of the millionaire, he has to break down the door to the room where the séance was being conducted and what was found inside that room was bizarre: the bloodied remains of Drake, an unconscious, skimpily-clad Rosa and every crack or opening was covered with gummed paper. The room was literally sealed shut from the inside! Rawson constructed a splendid and original trick to explain the sealed room, which had a clever piece of misdirection that even managed to stump Merlini for a brief moment. On top of that, the sealed room trick was tagged to an equally motive and a very convincing murderer – which made for a genuine classic locked room story and short detective-fiction.
You can find Carr's explanation in the book that provided an opening quote to this blog-post.
I originally read the next story, "Off the Face of the Earth," in Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories (1987), which mentioned in the introduction how Carr posed the premise of the story as a challenge to his friend: a man walks into a telephone booth and vanishes – followed by "work that one out." Once again, the magician and mystery writer rose to meet the challenge.
Inspector Homer Gavigan drops by Merlini with a rather peculiar problem: a chorus girl, Helen Hope, has gone missing and a very strange individual accurately predicted her disappearance. Bela Zyyzk claims to be "a momentary visitor to this planet" and is "a mindreader to boot," but Gavigan is the eternal skeptic and drags the self-proclaimed alien in front of a judge – which is when he makes another prediction how "the Outer Darkness is going to swallow Judge Keeler" as well. That's a problem for Gavigan. Judge Keeler is as crooked as a politician with scoliosis and has been pocketing fix money from the local mobsters, but they are in the process of closing a tight net around the Keeler.
So the last thing Gavigan wants is for the judge to disappear from the face of the earth and sticks a tail on him. The policeman charged with following him around never let him out of their sight for even a second, but there was a moment when the judge slipped into a phone booth. A phone booth of which "the back wall is sheet metal backed by solid marble" and lacked any "sliding panels, hinged panels, removable sections" or "trapdoors," which made a secret and unseen escape all but impossible – which is nonetheless what Judge Keeler managed to pull off. He entered a phone booth with only a single entrance and exit, watched by the police, proceeded to vanish from it. Leaving only his smashed, horn-rimmed glasses behind and a dangling phone receiver from which a voice was heard saying, "this is the end of the trail, Lieutenant."
Overall, the story does not soar to the same heights as the previous one, but it's still excellent and loved how Merlini improved on the trick for his demonstration.
For the next story, "Merlini and the Lie Detector," we return to the second batch of short-shorts that were used to challenge the readers of EQMM, but the murder of a TV producer proved to be unmemorable and not particular fair to the reader. I honestly did not care for this one.
However, I did enjoy "Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds," which is of special interest to fans of Ellery Queen and his detective stories about extensive searches of persons and rooms for vanished objects.
In this particular short-short, Merlini provides assistance to Inspector Gavigan and the Customs Service by helping to find a stash of "top quality blue-white stones." The person suspected of having hid the stones is a known crook and cardsharp, Pierre Aldo, but they have done a complete search of his person and cabin – without any result. Luckily, Merlini has a pretty good hunch where the diamonds may have been hidden. A fair story on the surface, but the experienced Customs officer, who rattled a whole slew of examples of diamond smuggling, probably should have checked that place, but, regardless, I still liked it. But I like these kinds of stories. My favorite is probably Ellery Queen's "Diamonds in Paradise," which is a cute short-short collected in Queens Full (1965). There's also Arthur Porges' "The Scientist and the Invisible Safe," from The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009), and "The Problem of the Missing Necklace" by Jacques Futrelle, which I recently reviewed in my takedown of several of his locked room mysteries.
The last of these short-shorts, "Merlini and the Sound Effects Murder," deals with the shooting of a sound effects specialist and the sound of his murder has been recorded, but Merlini solved the murder by noticing something that was not on the recording. A simple and somewhat disappointing story.
The next story, "Nothing is Impossible," tackles a subject not often dealt with in this genre of ours: ufology. Albert North is an aviation pioneer who has become interested in the study of extra-terrestrial visitors and has become "an unofficial clearing house for saucer information," but the circumstances of his strange death seems to indicate the aliens found him too inquisitive. North is found dead in his locked office and the only other person present in the room, his son-in-law, was unconscious and completely naked – his clothes "appear to have passed through his body."
However, the impossibility is not the locked office door, but how the murder weapon is nowhere to be found and the presence of strange footprints of two-foot, three-toed alien on the dusty surface of the file cabinet. Not a mind-blowing classic of the locked room sub-genre, but interestingly enough for its ufology background X-Files vibe.
The next story has a great title, "Miracles – All in the Day's Work," in which Inspector Gavigan was looking forward to his first vacation in over three years, but dropped by a fishing friend on his way to the Maine woods and became a witness to his seemingly impossible murder – because his murderer vanished from a watched room on the top floor of a New York skyscraper. A fun and interesting enough, but fails to pose a true challenge to the reader. You should be able to identify the murderer and gauge the main idea behind the locked room trick.
I found the next story, "Merlini and the Photographic Clue," not to be very memorable, which revolved around the murder of a gossip columnist and a photograph that showed a person could be at two places at the same time.
|Clayton Rawson shows-off "The Headless Lady."|
The final story from this collection, "The World's Smallest Locked Room," begins with a sincere apology from Ross Harte for having been "so remiss in keeping you up to date on The Great Merlini," which is followed by an update on his life and how his magic shop has become "the largest emporium of magicians’ supplies in the world" – even receiving orders "written in Swahili" from "witch doctors in the Congo." The impossible problem is an attempted poisoning at a place called Pancakes Unlimited, but the plot is fairly minor and I found the snippets of background information, characters and historical references far more interesting. There's a private-investigator, named Hammett Wilde, who's "no relation to either Dashiell or Oscar," and there was a reference to the moon landing to show some time has passed since the earlier stories, which is probably why the victim was given the name of Hassleblad.
So, all in all, a fair collection of short-shorts and short stories, but I had already read the best ones in the various, well-known locked room anthologies. However, I did not mind reacquainting myself with those excellent impossible crime stories. More importantly, this volume has whetted my appetite for the Don Diavolo novellas and The Headless Lady (1940), which is the last unread Merlini novel residing on the big pile. So you can probably expect more Rawson in the not so distant future.