Friday, August 16, 2013

Double Take FFB Review: "THE GREAT MERLINI: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective" by Clayton Rawson

Friday means Friday’s Forgotten Books hosted by Pattie Abbott here. This week we have something different for you. You may have seen the double take reviews that Barry and I have done where we each review the same book. This week for FFB Patrick Ohl and Barry Ergang do the same thing with THE GREAT MERLINI: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective by Clayton Rawson. Their takes on the book are different with Patrick going first below……

Clayton Rawson is a pretty well-known name from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. A magician and a great friend of John Dickson Carr’s, Rawson gave us one of the all-time great debuts of detective fiction when he invented his detective, The Great Merlini, and took him on a wild journey as Merlini had to solve the mystery of Death from a Top Hat, a complex affair involving multiple impossibilities that The Great Merlini explains rationally. Not only is it a great debut, I consider it one of the greatest detective novels of all-time. Rawson followed that classic up with three further novels and a series of short stories. But darn it all, those short stories are so hard to find!

But then, last year, while browsing my Facebook account, I suddenly noticed an update from! I gasped and made sure I was reading it right. Clayton Rawson was back in print! All his novels have been resurrected into e-books, but that wasn’t enough for the folks at By some miracle worthy of The Great Merlini himself, they managed to reprint Rawson’s Don Diavolo stories… as well as all the short stories starring The Great Merlini! And thus, I instantly went to Amazon and purchased three books, one of which is entitled The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective.

Would Clayton Rawson be able to match the ingenuity of Death from a Top Hat? Were these stories really worthwhile? How would The Great Merlini handle the impossible disappearance of a person from a phone booth, a challenge that the great John Dickson Carr failed miserably (in Scotland Yard’s Christmas)? What about those short-short stories? Reader, I present you my critiques of all the stories found in this brand new e-book:

A round of short-short stories: The Clue of the Tattoed Man/The Clue of the Broken Legs/The Clue of the Missing Motive
Three short-short stories open the collection, and these are so short that I do not want to describe them in detail for fear that I will spoil anything. These were originally contests that readers of EQMM were encouraged to solve. Although none of them are bad stories, they do have an Encyclopedia Brown sort of feel to them: a single word out of place could constitute the clue that gives you the solution. It’s not quite what I’d expect from Rawson. The neatest of these three is The Clue of the Missing Motive, although The Clue of the Broken Legs has a nice trick to it as well.

From Another World
John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson challenged each other to solve a puzzle: how could a murderer strike his victim when the latter was inside a room that was sealed with tape? Carr’s solution to the riddle is found in He Wouldn’t Kill Patience—one of his best books and one of his neatest solutions—and this is Rawson’s own variation. Andrew Drake, a rich man with a newfound obsession with ESP, is found dead in a room sealed with tape. The conditions were set up in order to make sure nobody could tamper with the results of an experiment—but the fellow really should have known better than to lock himself into a room in such a bizarre way.

This is quite simply one of the greatest short stories of all-time. The impossible crime is brilliantly worked out: the deception that makes the whole thing work has an idea of brilliant simplicity at its core. To top all this, the story is laced with a wonderful sense of humour that makes it such a joy to read: every single word is a delight. I envy those who will be reading it for the first time.

Off the Face of the Earth
Bela Zyzyk claims to be an alien, but his appearance seems quite ordinary. But there are some unsettling things about him: no relatives can be traced anywhere, and his gift of clairvoyance seems genuine! But judge for yourself: he tells a chorus girl, Dorothy Arnold, that she will disappear within a week, and even gives her the precise time as 4:20 PM. One day, Dorothy walks out of her house… and is seen for the last time at 4:18.

Inspector Homer Gavigan doesn’t like that and so hauls Zyzyk in front of a judge. But Zyzyk insists that the judge himself will soon be whisked off the face of the earth! Gavigan doesn’t like that: Judge Keeler is corrupt and a case is being built up against him. Will Zyzyk’s words warn the judge to skip out of town? Police surveillance is increased at once, so that the judge is being observed at every moment of the day. But when the judge enters a phone booth, observed by two policemen, he never exits. When the policemen lose their patience and look into the booth, they discover that it is empty, and only the judge’s bloody glasses are left behind!

This is another masterpiece from Rawson. It’s another story idea that both he and John Dickson Carr tackled. Unfortunately, Carr’s attempt to explain the phone booth disappearance is far from satisfactory—in fact, it’s a downright mess. Happily, Clayton Rawson rises to the challenge. This is a grand puzzle with another brilliant impossible crime trick and one that at long last answers the riddle of the phone booth disappearance. What are you doing still reading this? Go out and discover the puzzle for yourself!

More short-shorts: Merlini and the Lie Detector/Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds/ Merlini and the Sounds Effects Murder
These three short-short stories are sadly not particularly good ones. Merlini and the Lie Detector borders on cheating, the clue on which the solution hinges is so small and given late in the story. Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds has a supremely silly solution that makes you wonder just how foolish the police department is to have fallen for the trick. Merlini and the Sound Effects Murder is another variation on one of the most tired clichés in the genre—thank goodness the master practitioners so rarely used it! Very few have managed to put an interesting spin on this trick, and this story is not one of them.

Nothing is Impossible
Aliens have landed on the planet Earth! More specifically, they have landed in a locked room, where they managed to kill one man, strip another of his clothes (while keeping their arrangement intact) and then turn invisible and walk through walls, having left convenient footprints behind. It’s unfortunate that the Great Merlini is not a believer, because he proceeds to prove that a far more ordinary agency was behind this locked-room murder.

The locked room problem is a decent one and the story is, as always, very fun to read (and often quite funny). There’s just one problem: the killer’s plan has an almost fantastic quality of complexity about it. To give effect D, the killer had to perform stupefactions A, B, and C. Although these stupefactions have decent solutions of their own, tied together they feel somewhat unnatural. Merely a good story, then, though it has potential to be one of the greats.

Final Round of Stories
Miracles—All in the Day’s Work is a story in which Inspector Gavigan becomes the key witness to a locked-room murder. The only problem is the locked room trick instantly becomes apparent, to the point where you wonder why the police even needed The Great Merlini’s assistance in the first place. The next story, Merlini and the Photographic Clues, is a decent one in which a man seems to have been in two places at the same time… but experienced readers won’t have much trouble figuring out howdunnit. The last story in the collection, The World’s Smallest Locked Room, is the least interesting of them all. It’s a story about a poisoning attempt with only two suspects, but what boggles me the most is how the witnesses instantly knew that they would be dealing with an “impossible” poisoning, since the impossibility is never made clear. Is it because everyone was eating the same things? But that’s nonsense— although they all had coffee everyone put different things in it. And so the final story is an unfortunately underwhelming way to conclude the collection.

And there you have it folks, that was The Great Merlini. How was it? Well, I say it’s well worthwhile. If the only stories here were Off the Face of the Earth, From Another World, and Nothing is Impossible, the book would still be worthwhile! But you get plenty more stories, many of them short-shorts that I don’t want to describe in detail for fear of ruining the plot. Although they tend to be on the decent side, the final round of stories is an underwhelming way to end the collection. The Great Merlini’s greatest challenges make these stories seem like a cinch for the Great Man to solve in his sleep.

Still, it’s a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. I bought a Kindle edition and was very satisfied with it. (You can find more formats here.) The editing, proofreading, and layout were wonderful. I had an easy time reading the text and wasn’t distracted by OCR errors. And most important of all, I discovered once again just why I loved Clayton Rawson’s work so much in the first place. I loved getting to see The Great Merlini one more time, and although I still have a novel to go—No Coffin for the Corpse—before saying my last farewell, it was a pleasure to see him at the top of his game for a few short stories.

If you’ve never read Clayton Rawson’s story, this is a good place to start—although my personal recommendation is to start out with that masterpiece Death from a Top Hat. Golden Age detection doesn’t get much better or more ingenious!

Patrick Ohl ©2013
The nineteen-year-old Patrick Ohl continues to plot to take over the world when he isn’t writing reviews of books he reads on his blog, At the Scene of the Crime. In his spare time he conducts genetic experiments in his top-secret laboratory, hoping to create a creature as terrifying as the Giant Rat of Sumatra in a bid to take over the world. His hobbies include drinking tea and going outside to do a barbecue in -10°C weather.

THE GREAT MERLINI: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective (1979) by Clayton Rawson

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

As I have acknowledged in an essay and in other book reviews, I'm a sucker for impossible crime stories. When, years back, International Polygonics, Ltd. reissued the four novels by Clayton Rawson that starred The Great Merlini, crime-solving magician, I snapped them up. Although I felt the first one, Death From a Top Hat, piled on a few too many seemingly impossible situations, as though the author were afraid he'd never write and sell another book and had to demonstrate his entire repertoire of cleverness in this one, I read—and enjoyed even more—its three successors. I also read and liked three Merlini short stories in anthologies I acquired that were focused on locked-room mysteries. When I discovered that The Mysterious Press had reissued The Great Merlini, which collects all twelve of Rawson's short stories about him, I snatched up the Kindle edition. The stories are as follows.

Zelda the Snake Charmer has been strangled in her room—a room on the eighth floor whose "only window is locked on the inside." There's only one way in and out, and that's been under observation by a group of other circus performers who are shooting craps in the corridor outside. A frustrated Inspector Gavigan and Sergeant Brady aren't lacking for suspects when they relate the events to Merlini, who solves the case when he picks up on "The Clue of the Tattooed Man."

"Everybody," Gavigan growled, "tried to get in. And you want me to believe nobody ever went out—that Lasko's murderer vanished into thin air like a soap bubble." The exasperated inspector is once again faced with a seemingly impossible murder and a group of four suspects when the body of theatrical producer Jorge Lasko is found in a room with a French window locked from the inside. Private detective Dan Foyle arrived on the premises just before the two shots were fired, ran to the room, but saw nobody leave. Actress Dorothy Dawn was out on the sundeck and swears nobody exited the room via the window. Merlini seizes on "The Clue of the Broken Legs" to solve the case.

In "The Clue of the Missing Motive," Merlini tells Gavigan and Lieutenant Malloy, when they show up at his home: "A man gets killed at dusk last evening just across the street in the park—a hundred feet or so from my front door. Scores of people there, as usual, and one man actually saw the victim as he fell. Yet no one saw the murderer or heard the shot. I'm a magician. So I suspected you might suspect me." The real suspects, however, live next door, and all have motives for wanting one another dead. But what's the motive for killing the man from Oklahoma who actually died? Merlini, of course, figures it out as soon as the policemen provide him with the necessary details.

In one of the longer, more atmospheric, and much better-developed stories in the book, which I first read years ago in the anthology edited by Edward D. Hoch titled All But Impossible!, Merlini's journalist friend Ross Harte visits the magician before cabbing to Andrew Drake's mansion to interview Drake for a magazine article. A man of wide-ranging interests who says, "Put in enough money and you can accomplish anything," Drake's latest obsession is extrasensory perception and psychokinesis: "Unleash the power of the human mind and solve all our problems." When he arrives, Harte meets a clearly agitated Dr. Garrett, Drake's physician, on the doorstep. The two are admitted by Drake's daughter Elinor, who tells them her father is in his study. Dr. Garrett tries the door, then pounds on it and begs Drake to open it. When that proves futile, he and Harte break it down. The scene inside is a bizarre one, not only because of Drake's dead body, but also in part because of the unconscious psychic medium Rosa Rhys, who is clad in a skimpy bathing suit despite it being a bitterly cold January day. Gavigan and Merlini are summoned, and Merlini must determine whether this locked-room murder was committed by a human or someone "From Another World."

Anthologized in Death Locked In, edited by Douglas G. Greene and Robert C.S. Adey, where I first read it, "Off the Face of the Earth" begins with the saturnine Gavigan telling Merlini and Ross Harte about the mysterious disappearance of chorus girl Helen Hope. At a Park Avenue party she met Bela Zyyzk, who claims to be a visitor from Antares and a mind-reader. In front of witnesses, Zyyzk told Helen Hope she'd vanish off the face of the earth in three days—and she did. The D.A. requested of Judge Keeler that Zyyzk be held as a material witness, and Keeler granted the request. Then Zyyzk prophesied that Keeler, too, would vanish into the "Outer Darkness." Keeler is of special interest to the police because he's known to be on the take from the Castelli mob, and has been under twenty-four-hour surveillance. Learning that the judge has been to the safety deposit vault in his bank, has emerged carrying a suitcase, and has gone to Grand Central Station, Gavigan orders a subordinate to keep an eye on him and to "grab him the minute he tries to go through a gate." When Gavigan, Merlini and Harte get to the station themselves, they learn that a dazed Lieutenant Malloy and Sergeant Hicks had indeed been constantly watching Keeler. They had taken up positions opposite one another on either side of a line of phone booths. They saw Keeler go into one. When they looked in the booth a few minutes later, it was empty, Keeler apparently having vanished into thin air. It requires a magician like Merlini to explain this conundrum.

"Merlini and the Lie Detector" is a lightweight, negligible story that is neither fairly-clued nor one containing an impossible crime. Merlini must determine which of two suspects murdered Carl Todd. His method of doing so relies on a convenient oversight by the culprit, one that if avoided would have conceivably prevented arrest.

When Gavigan introduces Merlini to George Hurley, the chief of the Customs Service, the latter tells the magician: "I want to know how you would go about making nearly half a million dollars disappear." The suspected thief is another magician, a skilled card manipulator named Pierre Aldo. The authorities can only hold him for twenty-four hours, and thorough searches of his clothing and premises have turned up nothing. Merlini is on—and up against—the clock in "Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds."

Another relatively brief story in which Gavigan and another official, in this case F.B.I. agent Fred Ryan, present the magician with an impossible situation, "Merlini and the Sound Effects Murder" deals with the death of sound effects engineer Jerome Kirk. Having spent quite a number of years in the retail audio business, I question a crucial aspect of the story's solution. I haven't the technical expertise to say it's definitively possible or impossible, but if the former, I'm not sure it's so easily accomplished. To elaborate further would require a spoiler.      

"Nothing Is Impossible" reads the sign behind the counter in Merlini's Magic Shop, where the magician-cum-sleuth sells (and creates, when necessary) items for professional magicians to use in their acts. It is also the title of the next story in this collection, and another one I originally read in an anthology: The Locked Room Reader, edited by Hans Stefan Santesson. This one concerns retired aviation pioneer Albert North, who has handed the reigns of his company to his son-in-law, Charles Kane. Needing a hobby to keep himself busy and engaged, North became fascinated by the idea of extra-terrestrial beings visiting Earth in flying saucers, and has since become "an unoffical clearing house for saucer information," as Ross Harte explains to Merlini. When North is found shot to death in his study, which is locked from the inside, and Charles Kane is found unconscious and naked—his "shirt was inside the coat, neatly buttoned,  the Countess Mara tie still in place, still tied in a neat Windsor knot." His underwear is inside the top clothes and his socks are inside his shoes. "Kane says his clothes were removed while he was unconscious," Merlini tells Homicide's Lieutenant Doran. "They would appear to have passed through his body in the process." The appearance of what are apparently alien hieroglyphics burned into the plaster wall, and the absence of the gun that killed North, add to the puzzling circumstances, as do the four-inch-long, three-toed footprints in the dust atop some filing cabinets. Merlini has to figure out if E.T. committed murder and then beamed up to the mother ship, or whether a human culprit killed North, then miraculously vanished from a locked room. He also has to explain some of the aforementioned bizarre discoveries.

In "Miracles—All in the Day's Work," Merlini must accompany an insistent Lieutenant Doran, acting on the orders of Inspector Gavigan, to the Chancellor Building. Why the urgency? "What we got is a murderer who just vanished into thin air —sixty-four stories up." Three witnesses, one of whom is Inspector Gavigan, in the reception area of the Hi-Fly Rod & Reel Company, hear Courtney answer the phone in his office a while after a man in a Panama hat went in to see him. But after his secretary rings him several times and he doesn't answer, she opens the door and finds him slumped over his desk with a knife in his back. There is no sign of the man in the Panama hat, and he couldn't have gotten out the window even if he were a kind of human fly because the building has no ledges.

Lester Lee is a well-known Broadway gossip columnist. He's also  a blackmailer. When he's shot to death, George J. Boyle isn't sorry, but he is enraged. Boyle is the producer of the show "Magic and Music," and one of its stars, Inez Latour, has been hauled in for questioning by the police just prior to opening night. Another star is The Great Merlini. Boyle knows of his connections to the police and insists that Merlini become involved and get Inez Latour back in time for opening night. The magician, using his connections to the Homicide Department, discovers that much of the evidence is photographic and demonstrates that what you see is not always what's reality in "Merlini and the Photographic Clues."

The collection ends with another story narrated in the first-person by Ross Harte. The action occurs at Pancakes Unlimited, where Harte is having dinner with his friend Hammett Wilde, a private investigator. Wilde is keeping an eye on Carl Hassleblad, the producer of an underground film that unexpectedly became a hit, at the request of Hassleblad's wife. The producer is dining with an actress who goes by the name Anna Love, and a writer named Larry Allen. Both are demanding more money for an upcoming film, and Hassleblad is balking at the idea when he suddenly bolts for the men's room. Wilde follows him, then returns abruptly a moment later to enter a phone booth and call for an ambulance and squad car. Hassleblad has been poisoned. Who could have done it, and how? The restaurant isn't far from Merlini's home, and Wilde says he has "a hunch that a magician may come in handy." It goes without saying that he does, and ultimately solves "The World's Smallest Locked Room."

I said at the outset that I'm extremely fond of impossible crime stories. Unfortunately, other than the three I've read previously in anthologies, I find the stories in this collection to be largely disappointing. Several of the shorter ones are reminiscent of the old Minute- and Five-Minute Mysteries—i.e., intellectual exercises of a supremely mechanical nature that have little or no interest in engaging the reader via other elements of storytelling. Clayton Rawson was a friend of impossible crime master John Dickson Carr, who has often been criticized for superficial characterizations. Compared with Rawson, he's Dostoyevsky. Rawson's style is plain and straightforward, but lacks the color, vigor, and atmosphere that, to my mind, tales of "miracle" crimes deserve.  

As mentioned earlier, I read the Kindle edition. Although it wants some better editing, its typos and punctuation errors are relatively few. Its most glaring error, however, is the illustration of a three-toed footprint that belongs in "Nothing is Impossible" but appears in "Merlini and the Photographic Clues."

All things considered, I can only recommend The Great Merlini to mystery fans for whom puzzle is pre-eminent, who are not especially interested in character and atmosphere, and who are completists with regard to specific authors or types of stories. Other readers need to look elsewhere.

© Barry Ergang 2013

Derringer Award-winner Barry Ergang's own impossible crime novelette, "The Play of Light and Shadow," is available at Amazon and Smashwords.


Kelly Robinson said...

Great write-up, both of you. What a fun idea to give us two reviews for the price (?) of one.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

The guys did a great job. Hopefully this will happen more often.