Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat


My first book of this week was another excursion into the world of Golden Age mysteries; this time one set in the U.S.; the first book of Clayton Rawson’s Great Merlini series, focusing on a famous magician who, instead of resting on his laurels, has opened a magic shop and, as a sideline, agrees to help the police solving crimes set in his milieu.

Like most locked room mysteries, this book is best enjoyed in print — or if as an audiobook, at least with the print edition not too far away, as the print edition includes images of the crime scenes (yes, there are several) as well as other diagrams, all of which are darned near indispensable to following the plot, let alone trying to solve the mystery.  As you’d expect in any book with a magician at its center, slights of hand, trap doors and other instances of misdirection play a huge part here, and although they are not all visual, being able to trace them on the scene of crime images helps a lot.

What I particularly enjoyed in this book, though, were its manifold hattips to virtually all the great authors and detectives of Golden Age crime fiction — Rawson’s contemporaries as well as those of prior decades.  There is a long paragraph right at the beginning of the book, and many more references throughout; some (from a modern reader’s POV) a bit veiled, some less so — although doubtlessly all of them would have made instant sense to Rawson’s contemporary readers.  Rawson truly treasured the great mystery authors of his own time, and in turn, John Dickson Carr considered him one of the masters of the locked room genre and one of the six best mystery writers of the era: One may or may not agree with the second part of that compliment, but there is no doubt about the truth of the first part, and I am glad that, once more, Martin Edwards (in his two nonfiction books on the Golden Age) and Otto Penzler (by republishing this particular book) have collectively brought him to my attention.

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