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.