Death From A Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson

Rawon is an author I have been aware of for a while but not tried until now, so thank you to the Puzzle Doctor (writer of In Search of the Classic Mystery blog) for the loan of Rawson’s first Merlini mystery, which the narrator, Ross Harte, calls ‘the case of the dead Magicians.’ And with that kind of title every reader is expecting a fairly impressive murder method and hats off (top hats of course) to Rawson he really does give us two mind frazzling crimes. For those who love figuring out howdunnits, this story will certainly give you something to contend with. It all begins with Ross finding his next door neighbour Dr Sabbat (an anthropologist of sorts) murdered, after he and some of Sabbat’s friends break open the flat. Whilst Sabbat’s actual death is very simple to deduce, he was strangled, how the killer entered and left is another problem entirely. What makes this case even more fiendish is that all of the suspects have magic related occupations such as being escape artists, mentalists, sleight of hand artists and later on even a ventriloquist. When the second murder occurs problem after problem gets added to the attempts made to create a workable theory of how both crimes were committed. I won’t say more about the crimes themselves, but suffice to say it’s a good job Inspector Gavigan asked magician (and sometimes amateur sleuth), Merlini, to help him out.

Given the focus on how the crimes were committed, there is not too much investigation into the why or the motives, which are trotted out quite early on, such as marital infidelity and Sabbat’s general psychopathic approach to others and his persecution complex. Unsurprisingly the suspects are far from helpful telling downright lies and half-truths and when called upon to provide expert opinions on the modus operandi of the crimes, both the reader and the investigators have to assess how reliable they really are. However I think a significant issue I had with this story was the arm’s length treatment we had with the characters, as the novel focuses mainly on the investigators and their investigative work outside of interviewing the suspects, (which doesn’t feature much in the story first hand). Yet I think Merlini becomes a more likeable amateur sleuth as the book progresses, being quite humorous at times and Harte is a good choice for narrator, being outside of the magician fraternity and therefore coming at the case more like the reader does. Pace wise I think the book got off to a ropey start, as in some ways the opening third is quite dense. However, I think the book picks up again after this point.

Locked room mystery fans will appreciate how Merlini references the locked room lecture delivered by Dr Fell in John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935) and applies it to the crimes he is investigating. Like I mentioned earlier this is a mind frazzling and brain frying sort of puzzle, not due to bizarreness (as is the case in the work of Harry Stephen Keeler), but due to its logic and mathematical precision, (which comes in the form of a diagram that did briefly take me back to my GCSE maths days). With such stakes raised the solution needed to be spot on and I have to say whilst I didn’t get any of it, it was fairly impressive, if a bit sneaky. Though you do wonder why a killer would go to such lengths to bump people off. Readers keen on fair play in their mystery fiction will enjoy the fact that within a couple of pages of the story beginning we are told two key things to look out: what one thing did the suspects have in common? And what two things could one of them done which no one else could have? Nevertheless I think the reader definitely needs to be on the ball for answering this second question. What with the magic milieu of the novel I did start wondering about how when a magic trick is revealed and explained, people can often get disappointed by it. Yet when it comes to mystery fiction one of the main reasons to keep reading is to find out how the crimes were done. So whilst having the crime explained is not disappointing in itself for the mystery reader, a poor or irritating solution can be. Thankfully I don’t think this is the case here.

Given the relatively untouched milieu of magic in the book, it is quite amusing that in the opening chapter we see extracts from a pessimistic article Harte is working on about ‘the state of the modern detective story. Harte describes the detective novel as:

‘a complicated species of jigsaw puzzle that is not so much written as constructed; and that, according to almost mathematical formulae. It is a mental contest between reader and author […] a set of rules so familiar to every detective story fan that the sales of the author’s next book suffer if he so much as infringes a minor ordinance. These rules requires that the story of detection be cast in a regulation mould, fashioned according to a standard pattern that once may have seemed capable of kaleidoscopic variation, but which is now sadly worn […] Why write a detective story when all the good plots have been used, all the changes rung, all the devices made trite?’

What makes this section so interesting is going back to it once you’ve read the novel, seeing how it aligns with these comments or plays around with them at times, especially in regards to the idea of not infringing the detective story rules. In a way though it is mostly an ironic passage, as the novel clearly goes on to show that the detective story is not ‘now sadly worn’ and that there were still more variations to be found and other good plots to be created.

So whilst the pacing and characterisation was not quite on top form, the puzzle factor was engrossingly perplexing and kept me reading to the end.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Map

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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20 Responses to Death From A Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson

  1. Colin says:

    None of Rawson’s Merlini novels are 100% successful but you do feel he was doing his level best to entertain. I think this one id the best of them, although I think The Footprints on the Ceiling is fine too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ says:

    Kate, I am delighted to see you enjoying a puzzle in spite of insufficient characterisation — your journey to the Dark Side has begun! This is great from a construction perspective and, no doubt, it suffers as far as the people are concerned, so we’re aligned in our feelings in this regard. I’ve only read the one other novel — No Coffin for the Corpse — and didn’t love it, but still have The Footprints on the Ceiling to delve into at some point, about which others will have to inform you. If you’re interested in reading more of Rawson, his collected short stories are pretty great, with one or two all time classics.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Are his short stories particularly hard to come across? I do like a perplexing puzzle and case (fairly sure smoke was coming out my ears at one point, my mind was boggling that much). I think the way Rawson structured the novel meant he just got away with his distant characterisation. Thankfully there are three investigators to follow so you don’t feel as short changed character wise.

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      • JJ says:

        I bought the collected short stories on Kindle a few years ago, but they don’t seem to be available in the UK any more, so I’m guessing rights have expired or something. Never looked for them in tree book form, but they’re probably a bit difficult to come by, I’d imagine, depending on how good your secondhand contacts are (and, y’know, how willing you are to be ripped off by a secondhand book dealer…).

        I presume you’ve read Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, have you? There’s something about magicians turning their hand to impossible crime fiction that seems to result in crazy-busy stories that are a lot of fun to simply get swept along in. Here’s hoping we discover more in the years to come!

        Liked by 1 person

      • No I’ve not read Talbot’s book *shock horror*. I think the plots get so busy because as in a magic trick it is all about misdirection and distraction. The plots get so frantic that you invariably have little time to pause and see what the writer is trying to hide, let alone remember important details from the start of the book. It does seem odd though that magician sleuths have not been used more.

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      • Santosh Iyer says:

        The collected Merlini short stories as well as all other books by Clayton Rawson are being released in kindle editions tomorrow.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh cool. How very timely!

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    • Oh I meant to ask have you ever see the 1939 adaptation of this book?

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  3. JFW says:

    Thanks for the review, and I was interested to see what you would have made of this novel when I espied that it was ‘standing on trial’. I haven’t read the novel myself – it’s sitting on my TBR shelf – but from what I’ve heard of it I would have guessed that it leaned towards ‘Sealed Room Murder’. And therefore would have been up JJ’s alley rather than yours… But glad you still enjoyed the puzzle. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Meme: New to Me Authors: April-June 2017 | crossexaminingcrime

  5. Great review Kate, and glad you enjoyed it. I must say I am with JJ in that I found this book hugely frustrating, and the solutions tricky, although the taxi trick has a certain elegance (although I guessed that before I even read the book at it seemed the only possibility, and totally followed a magicians way of working).

    I am also with JJ in that Rawson’s short stories are awesome, ‘Of The Face Of The Earth’ is one of my top 10 impossible crimes ever.

    Liked by 1 person

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