The Great Merlini (Clayton Rawson)

  • By Clayton Rawson
  • First published: US: Gregg Press, 1979
  • Availability: Mysterious Press

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Murder and magic are kindred arts; they rely on misdirection and mystification. So who better than a magician to catch a murderer?

The Great Merlini first appeared in Death from a Top-Hat (1938), widely regarded as a locked-room classic, and three more books followed, all distinguished by dazzling detectival legerdemain and cunning criminal conjuring.

Merlini also appeared in a dozen or so short stories, all first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

“From Another World” (1948) was the result of a discussion with John Dickson Carr about getting out of a room sealed on the inside with tape – “the sealed room to end all sealed rooms”. (Carr gave his answer in He Wouldn’t Kill Patience.) Millionaire Andrew Drake is stabbed to death; the only other occupant is a young woman wearing only a bathing-suit. Philippine tree snail shells suggest the death was caused by evil forces from another world! The idea is clever and simple (ROT13: gur qbbe jnfa’g ybpxrq ng nyy!).

“Off the Face of the Earth” shows how a man can vanish from a watched telephone booth. It begins with the disappearance of a chorus girl; Bela Zyyzk, a mindreader from the dark cloud of Antares, predicted the Lords of the Outer Darkness would swallow her up. He also predicts that corrupt Judge Keeler will disappear by the end of the week – and Keeler does so, from a call box at Grand Central Station, watched at all times by two policemen. The ‘How’ is clever (although a diagram would make Merlini’s variation clearer), and the ‘Who’ both surprising and logical.

“Nothing is Impossible” (1958) collides science fiction with the murder mystery. The victim was apparently murdered by an alien from a flying saucer! Albert North, chairman of an aviation company, is shot in his locked study, apparently by a two-foot-high man who left three-toed footprints. How did the gun vanish? Suspects include an archaeologist who believes Martians visited the Mayans. The set-up is great, but the solution is a tad implausible.

In “Miracles – All in a Day’s Work” (1958), Merlini’s policeman friend, Inspector Gavigan, is on the scene when someone shoots the owner of a fishing business; the murderer vanishes into thin air, 64 storeys up. This is cutely told, but the answer’s obvious.

In “Merlini and the Photographic Clues”, the opening night of Merlini’s new show is nearly called off when his leading lady is arrested for murdering a blackmailing Broadway gossip columnist. Like a lot of the short mysteries, the solution feels gimmicky.

Six of them are reader-contest stories Rawson wrote for EQMM, of which he was the managing editor. They are cute, if lightweight. When they were first published, each story broke off just before Merlini revealed the answer; the solution was given a few issues later. It would have been nice if the book had retained that approach; instead, the stories are over before they’ve even begun, scarcely giving the reader a chance to stop and think.

In “The Clue of the Tattooed Man” (1946), a seductive snake-charmer is strangled; witnesses saw a tattooed man enter the murder room, but he claims an alibi.

In “The Clue of the Broken Legs” (1947), a theatrical producer is shot, apparently by a blackmailer; the telephone clue is ingenious.

In “The Clue of the Missing Motive” (1947), a phantom gunman shoots an unidentified man in Central Park; Merlini is suspected.

In “Merlini and the Lie Detector” (1955), a TV producer is bludgeoned with his Oscar award; the two suspects each accuse the other. This minor story hinges on a simple deduction from windscreen wipers.

In “Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds” (1955), the police know a French magician has smuggled contraband jewels into the US; how does he do it? Clever enough, but surely the customs officers would have been more observant?

And “Merlini and the Sound Effects Murder” (1955) brings the old tape recorder / gramophone dodge into the hi-fi age. A sound designer with a taste for practical jokes is shot in a soundproof room; the obvious suspect has a cast-iron alibi, so how did she do it?

Merlini’s last appearance was in “The World’s Smallest Locked Room” (1971), a trifle in which he solves a poisoning at a pancake parlour.

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4 thoughts on “The Great Merlini (Clayton Rawson)

  1. These were my first exposure to Merlini, and I was excited for the novels. After two of the novels I am…less excited, but I hope the AMCs will republish the ones I haven’t read (hell, all of them — Rawson probably deserves it). I suspect that I’d have more patience for Rawson on paper, and would love to find out if that’s the case!

    ‘Off the Face of the Earth’ is a masterpiece, far outstripping ‘From Another World’ — Carr’s solution, though cumbersome, just works better for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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