As someone involved in both the world of magic and the world of literature, I’m surprised it took me this long to come around to Clayton Rawson’s “Merlini” books. These are widely considered classics of the “locked room” mystery genre and with Death from a Top Hat one can see why.
The book follows Ross Harte, a reporter and sometimes mystery writer who gets dragged into a locked room case happening in his apartment building. Harte is known to Police Inspector Gavigan and when things look a bit confusing fairly early on, and all of the suspects are magicians and entertainers, Harte and Gavigan both have the same idea, call in a consultant who might know a thing or two about magic and mystery: The Great Merlini. Merlini is a stage magician and magic shop owner (like Houdini, Merlini has presumably added the “i” in homage to a great wizard) who also happens to dabble as an amateur detective when the case fits his particular set of skills. This case does.
A believer in the black arts is found dead inside a conjuring pentagram which has been drawn on the floor of his apartment. Of course, to find this body the assembled group who would soon all become suspects must break in and it is quickly discovered there was no way in or out leaving everyone perplexed.
A second locked room shows up about two thirds through book, giving Merlini a new riddle to solve. A second room with the body laid out the same way and here we get a great bit of actual magical knowledge, that a magician may be able to perform the same trick in a number of different ways to throw off the audience, because when they perform the same trick for a magician, each time the viewer gets closer to piecing together the secret.
This is a nice bit of verité, here, since Rawson himself was a performing magician and so was able to provide all sorts of little tid bits and asides, things which make you think you’re getting an insider view of the tricks, a backstage peek, but you’re not. In reality, even in 1938 when this book was written, the methods given up were old or unusual methods, when he even ascribed a method at all. Often Rawson hinted at a secret but in the end revealed nothing.
While Rawson has a great way of developing the mystery and revealing the clues (a nice touch in this edition is they actually point out where in the text the clues are to be found as Merlini reveals them during his final summation), he is not great, at least not in this first book, at creating individual characters who have anything beyond a slight third dimension. It was easy to get characters confused and not quite remember who was who and where. In the end, it required a fair bit of concentrated effort to make sure we knew who everyone was and why they wanted other people dead.
That all said, I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series.