Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

Originally published in 1938
The Great Merlini #1
Followed by The Footprints on the Ceiling

Master magician The Great Merlini has hung up his top hat and white gloves, and now spends his days running a magic shop in New York and his nights moonlighting as a consultant for the NYPD. When the crimes seem impossible, it is his magician’s mind they need. 

So when two occultists are discovered dead in locked rooms, one spread out on a pentagram, both appearing to have been murdered under similar circumstances, Merlini is immediately called in. The list of suspects includes an escape artist, a professional medium, and a ventriloquist – and it is only too clear that this is a world Merlini knows rather too well…

With my track history I should have known better than to plan a weekly feature…

Back when I announced that Mondays would be impossible I had a list of titles I was very keen to read and review. This book was right at the top of that list for a couple of pretty good reasons. The first was its wide availability thanks to a reprint a few years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I always appreciate being able to talk about books that there is at least a pretty good chance others have read. The other reason was that this book is pretty widely celebrated and was voted seventh best locked room mystery of all time by experts in the genre. In short I was hoping for a guaranteed positive review. As you have probably surmised, that is not what you’re getting here…

Ross Harte is working on an article about detective stories when he hears a commotion coming from outside his neighbor’s apartment. Upon investigating he finds a group of magicians trying to rouse his neighbor, Dr. Sabbat, who they had apparently arranged to meet. They are concerned to find that he cannot be roused and that there are no signs he has left the apartment that day as there is milk still on the doorstep. Fearing something may have happened they break in only to discover his corpse.

On close examination it seems that Dr. Sabbat has been stranged and his body has been arranged atop a drawn pentagram, his limbs arranged to touch each of its points. The body is surrounded by occult objects including a book detailing a ritual to summon a demon. Each of the doors to the room had been locked and bolted from the inside, the keys within Sabbat’s pocket, while the door locks have been stuffed with fabric from the inside. None of the windows appear to have been disturbed. In short, there does not seem to be any way that the killer could have escaped yet a thorough search does not find anyone inside the room either.

The police are baffled and recognizing that all of the suspects come from the world of magic they decide to send for an expert magician of their own, the Great Merlini. Their hope is that he will be able to offer some simple technical explanation of how the trick was worked but instead their investigation expands as we encounter further impossibilities including a second murder along the same lines and a suspect’s disappearance from within an observed taxi cab.

Rawson stuffs the first half of his novel full of ideas, many of which are quite intriguing. I think he does a particularly good job of laying out the various features and points of interest in the first crime scene, giving the reader plenty of information to work with. I also really enjoyed the suggestion, however brief, of the crime’s connection to the occult and wished that he had leant a little more heavily into that idea (as Paul Halter would do working half a century later).

The subsequent impossibilities are similarly quite well set up and described, particularly the disappearance. While simpler than either of the locked rooms, the idea is visually quite appealing and serves a really useful role in the story as it allows the reader to see evidence of Merlini’s abilities and deductive reasoning early in the novel. The locked rooms, by comparison, are much more challenging with solid solutions and will likely please those who are primarily interested in the puzzle.

While I am focusing on the positives, I should also highlight the cast of suspects that Rawson creates. The idea of having each of them be professionals within the magic world is pretty inspired, not only because it means we have multiple experts of misdirection at hand but because they are all pretty colorful and eccentric characters. I enjoyed exploring their personalities and learning more about their acts.

As pleasing as the puzzle and many of the supporting characters were, I found the experience of reading this to be a real slog. The problems begin with the use of Harte as the narrator. While the choice of having an expert in detective fiction narrate the story adds a playful self-awareness that Rawson makes use of to expand upon Carr’s famous locked room lecture, I found Harte’s presence largely distracting.

Harte does not really offer up much in the way of contributions to the plot beyond his witnessing the initial discovery of the body and so becomes an extra body whose presence during the investigation feels odd (which given that it stands out in a book that features the police consulting a magician is quite remarkable). While I understand the need to keep us distant from a genius like Merlini so we do not learn the identity of the person he suspects until close to the end, I think this character could have been folded into one of the policemen and it would have made for a much neater story.

I was actually pretty lukewarm towards Merlini himself. His expertise on elements of magic is certainly interesting but other aspects of his personality, particularly his smug attitude towards the authorities, put me in mind of Phase One Ellery Queen. On another day I may well have reacted more charitably towards this but I felt thoroughly worn out by him by the end of the novel.

One of the stranger ideas in the novel is the choice to have him deliver his own version of a locked room lecture, a la Dr. Gideon Fell who he references as though he were a real person. While I quite liked that conceit of the character being real and merely chronicled by Carr, the delivery of the lecture felt dry and its inclusion rather contrived, as though it was there to reference something the author loved rather than because it was necessary as a structure to explore the crime scene.

This brings me to my final complaint which concerns the novel’s pacing. While the careful exploration of the details of a crime scene is quite desirable, the back and forth discussions with the police detective handling the case felt repetitive and really slow the novel down. These appear to have been intended to be a source of humor as we see the detective become frustrated with Merlini but they weren’t funny enough to justify the time given over to them, nor did they significantly advance our understanding of the plot.

All of which is a shame because the parts of this story that worked are really fun and clever. Rawson clearly had some superb ideas and he creates several really strong impossibilities with fair play solutions. I personally didn’t care too much for the investigation itself but I know I am in the minority on this one and would certainly encourage you to seek out other views if you haven’t already read this yourself.

The Verdict: This offers up several intriguing impossibilities but I found the pace slow and did not care much for Merlini.

Further Reading

Ben @ The Green Capsule suggests that the book is a ‘must read’ and praises the slew of impossibilities it offers.

JJ @ The Impossible Event similarly appreciated the author’s creativity and praises the bold challenge to the reader Rawson issues just a few pages into the novel. I had meant to do that too – that’s one of the more charming features of the novel.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the puzzles but had similar feelings about the book’s pace and characterization.

18 thoughts on “Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

  1. I am somewhere between you and JJ on this. It’s absolutely a must read for locked room fans but it’s not a book to recommend to non GAD readers. I have a vague memory that the second Merlini novel is better, but that the last one is worse. (I have not read any of the Diavolo books.)
    The cleverness is is memorable though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that sounds fair. I can certainly see why some readers have loved this one, even if it grated on me a little. I may try the second Merlini but I suspect there may be a considerable gap before I do.


      1. Yeah, I have some Rawson in my reread pile, but it might be a while. More Carr first!

        I have in mind — and on my Kindle — the perfect thing for you, but I want to reread it before suggesting it.



    2. I agree that this wouldn’t be a good starting point for someone getting into locked room mysteries because it ends up being a bit dry and I don’t think it really delivers when it comes to the solutions.


  2. I read this when the reprint was pretty recent, and also when I was in the midst of cataract surgery so I kept switching to different glasses, and was breaking up my reading into short spurts. So I may not have done it justice at the time. Still, here is some of my email reaction (to a likeminded friend) at the time:

    Despite what ought to be a colorful and distinctive set of characters, they all kind of melted into one another, and I kept having to go back and remind myself who was who. Maybe that’s my fault, because I took such long breaks between chapters. But I’d also turn that around and say I kept neglecting to pick it up again because it wasn’t really coming alive for me.

    Also, just the quality of the writing seemed kind of drab. Not actively irritating like Ellery Queen, but I can see why Rawson hasn’t survived into the immortals. The page-by-page fun of reading wasn’t there for me as it is with the masters.

    There was one sentence that sort of epitomized what’s missing. At the start of Chapter 13 he knows a bit of description is needed, but all he can come up with is “The new snow glistened softly in the brilliant splash of the headlights, and the tall buildings rose around us ghostly and dark into a black sky.” That’s like… the minimum possible effort. We saw the snow, it was dark out. Period. Everything was just that kind of functional writing with no value added.

    On the positive side, the atmosphere of the magicians is kind of cool, though it didn’t take off like I hoped it would. As a big plus, the solution is REALLY ingenious (Carr would have been proud, it reminded me of him, but he would have done the atmosphere better).

    Also — it’s not just this book, but… Boy, they did not at all care about preserving the chain of evidence, or keeping everyone away from the scene of the crime until the techs had completely covered it, did they? Just invite in the amateur bystanders, everyone have a smoke, and pass around whatever you find. (Just occasionally with a mild harumph of “perhaps I shouldn’t, but…”) Was procedure much more lax then, or was this an accepted convention of popular crime fiction? Some of both, I suspect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts – I think you make some really good points. And yes, the evidence chain issues are astonishing. As you say, this book isn’t unique for that and I understand why Merlini gets to touch stuff but why is our narrator there?


  3. I can’t remember much about this one, but I think my rating was middle-ish. I’ve never been hugely motivated to locate the others. I am in awe of you doing a set weekly post! I find it hard enough doing monthly ones!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s been about two years since I read this and in retrospect I don’t look back at it as that amazing. Yes, the set up with the multiple impossibilities and the diverse cast of magician suspects is nearly unsurpassed, but beyond that, the book kind of reads like a dry period-one Ellery Queen novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good god, man — don’t criticise Ellery Queen…! 😄

      But, yeah, I agree — it has moments of briliance, but my feelings towards it have cooled overall since I first read it. I did, however, buy this reprint so that I could reread it in paper form at some point, which usually results in my having a more positive impression of a book for reasons I’m yet to figure out…

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you – that is a series I keep checking out of the library but something always gets above it in my TBR pile and it gets returned unread. One of these days I will get to them!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Good write-up (which I am responding to 9 months late, sadly)! I think it’s interesting to see someone who was also not totally enamored with this book, but for the total opposite reasons I’d expect. I thought the writing and middle portions of the book were well-going and the characters fun, but I thought the solutions were obvious and disappointing (as someone who came expressly for the puzzle). Quite a lot of flavor that felt redundant or unnecessary, especially in the face of a solution that was unimpressive and definitely shy of what I’d expect of professional magicians.

    I hate to be contrarian, but the resolution is as important to me as the set-up in these sorts of mysteries (as opposed to other people who value the illusion), and on that count Rawson definitely didn’t leave me unduly impressed with his debut. I hear some of his short mysteries are unusurpable masterpieces though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment – they are always welcome though some books I remember better than others. I ended up having to reread my post as I could not recall much of anything about this beyond the sense that it didn’t live up to the hype I had perceived it to have.
      I do agree that the resolution is as important as the setup. What you say is absolutely fair – I felt Rawson sets high expectations for trickery that the book fails to deliver upon.
      I have heard the same of those short stories and do intend to check them out at some point in the future.


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