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Clayton Rawson 


Clayton Rawson (1906–1971) was an American mystery writer, editor, and amateur magician. His four novels frequently invoke his great knowledge of stage magic and feature, as their fictional detective, The Great Merlini, a professional magician who runs a shop selling magic supplies. He also wrote several short stories about a stage magician named Don Diavolo, who appears as a character in one of the earlier novels featuring The Great Merlini.

Rawson was born in Elyria, Ohio, and started as a magician when he was only eight years old. He graduated from Ohio State University, then moved to Chicago to work as an illustrator.

He was one of the four founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, which presents the annual Edgar Awards in various categories of mystery writing. All of his novels were written before the founding of this group, but in 1949 and 1967, Rawson received Special Edgar Awards for his various contributions to mystery writing and the MWA. Rawson was also managing editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1963 and his death in 1971.

At least two movies were made based on the Merlini books. One of them, ‘Miracles for Sale’ (1939), was taken from ‘Death from a Top Hat’ but had no character named Merlini—instead, Robert Young played “The Great Morgan”. The movie ‘The Man Who Wouldn’t Die’ (1942), starring Lloyd Nolan, was based on ‘No Coffin for the Corpse’, though the Merlini character was replaced by Michael Shayne, a popular fictional private eye at the time, created by writer Brett Halliday. A 30-minute pilot for a television series was created in 1951, but no further episodes were made. (Source: edited from Wikipedia)

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Great Merlini Novels


LR Death Top Hat 2

Death from a Top Hat (1938)
The Great Merlini Series

 

 

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Note: A host of magicians?

When a necromancer is found dead inside his locked and sealed apartment, the police call in Merlini to help explain the impossible. However, the suspects are quite accustomed to producing the impossible. They include a professional medium, an escape artist, a couple of magicians, a ventriloquist, and two people who claim to demonstrate mental telepathy in their nightclub act.

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Footprints ceiling

The Footprints on The Ceiling (1939)
The Great Merlini Series

 

 

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Note: Murder on Skeleton Island

An agoraphobic heiress is murdered at her home on Skelton Island, a tiny island in the East River of New York City. The suspects include a psychic researcher, a medium, a gangster, and a group of treasure hunters. The clues include counterfeit gold guinea coins, a man with blue skin, and a murder scene with a set of neat footprints marching across the ceiling. Merlini survives more than one attempt on his life before he can call in the police and conclusively bring the crimes home to the guilty.

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Headless Lady

The Headless Lady (1940)
The Great Merlini Series

 

 

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Note: Death stalks a circus

Major Hannum’s death was probably murder.  Merlini becomes suspicious when Hannum’s daughter, a performer with the circus, enters The Magic Shop and offers to pay much more than the going price for immediate delivery of a “Headless Lady” illusion. Merlini must use his magic skills to escape from an “escape-proof” jail, assemble all the suspects, and identify the murderer in a surprising final scene.

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No CoffinNo Coffin for The Corpse (1942)
The Great Merlini Series

 

 

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Notes: Death as a hobby?

Millionaire Dudley Wolff has made death his hobby. But when a private detective decides to blackmail Wolff, he won’t stand for it; he strikes the man, who falls to the floor stone dead. Wolff forces his hangers-on to help him bury the little man – who comes back to haunt Wolff, and forces him to call in The Great Merlini to explain some very odd occurrences. Not a great locked room murder, but contains enough elements to make the list.

More on ‘No Coffin for The Corpse’


Clayton Rawson Locked Room Short Stories


great merliniThe Clue of The Broken Legs
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: An impossible disappearance

Jorge Lasko, a theatrical producer, is shot to death inside a locked room by a murderer who has mysteriously vanished, even though all possible exits were under observation immediately following the shots. Private detective Dan Foyle was on the premises just before the two shots were fired, ran to the room, but saw nobody leave, while actress Dorothy Dawn was 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


great merliniFrom Another World
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: A Carr-Rawson locked room challenge

John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson designed a puzzle which challenged each other to discover how a murderer might kill his victim inside a locked room that was sealed with tape. Carr’s solution is found in one of his best novels, ‘He Wouldn’t Kill Patience’, while this is Rawson’s own response to this literary duel. Andrew Drake, a rich man whose most recent obsession is ESP, is murder in a room sealed with tape, which also contains an unconscious bikini clad medium – in the middle of January. Of course, all the possible exits are under observation, making escape quite impossible. Quite simply, one of the very best locked room stories of all time!


great merliniMerlini and The Vanished Diamonds
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: Diamonds disappear from a locked and observed ship cabin.  

Gavigan introduces Merlini to George Hurley, the head of the Customs Service, who has a straight forward question: “I want to know how you would go about making nearly half a million dollars disappear.” A skilled magician named Pierre Aldo, is clearly involved in this case, but they can only hold him for twenty-four hours, and so far all their searches have proved futile. Merlini must race the clock in “Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds.” Warning: The solution has been referred to as ‘silly’ by at least one critic.


great merliniMiracles – All in the day’s work!
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: Stabbed in a locked room atop a skyscraper!

Merlini is called to the Chancellor Building, to discover how a murderer vanished into thin air – from the 64th floor. Three witnesses, including Inspector Gavigan, heard the victim answer the phone in his office, after a man in a Panama hat had entered. But when his secretary gets no further response, she opens the door and finds his body lying across his desk with a knife in his back, and no sign of the man in the Panama hat. There are no ledges outside the window, and the only entrance to the room was under constant observation.


great merliniNothing is Impossible
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: Shot in a locked room beside an unconscious naked man & alien clues are part of the evidence! 

“Nothing Is Impossible” is a sign in Merlini’s Magic Shop, and also the title of this story, which deals with the murder of aviation pioneer, Albert North, who has become fascinated by the idea of extra-terrestrials visiting Earth in flying saucers. North is found shot in his study, locked from the inside, with Charles Kane, his son-in-law, unconscious and naked, with his clothes neatly removed and arranged – and no memory of the event. Possible alien hieroglyphics are burned into the wall, three toed footprints found in the dust, and their is no sign of the gun that killed North. Has E.T. killed North, or is their some more reasonable answer? 


great merliniOff The Face of The Earth
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: A judge disappears from a phone booth under close observation

“Off the Face of the Earth” starts with the mysterious disappearance of chorus girl, Helen Hope. At a party she meets Bela Zyyzk, who claims to be an alien from Antares and a mind-reader. In front of witnesses, Zyyzk tells Helen she will vanish off the face of the earth in three days – and she does! Judge Keeler then orders that Zyyzk be held as a material witness, and Zyyzk predicts that the judge will also vanish into the “Outer Darkness.” Keeler is suspected of mob ties, under close surveillance, and about to be arrested, when he steps into a phone booth at Grand Central station, and vanishes! This is another masterpiece from Rawson, and the result of another challenge with John Dickson Carr, who clearly lost this round! 


great merliniThe World’s Smallest Locked Room
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: An impossible poisoning?

Ross Harte is having dinner at Pancakes Unlimited, with his friend Hammett Wilde, a P.I., who is keeping an eye on Carl Hassleblad, the producer of a hit underground film. The producer is dining with an actress named Anna Love, and a writer named Larry Allen. Both are demanding pay raises when Hassleblad bolts for the men’s room. Wilde follows, then soon returns to call for an ambulance and police. Hassleblad has been poisoned, but neither of the suspects apparently  had the opportunity to tamper with his food. It therefore requires Merlini to discover the method. Not one of Rowland’s best.


great merliniThe Clue of The Tattooed Man
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: Murder is a real circus!

Zelda the Snake Charmer has been strangled in her room on the eighth floor, and the only window is locked on the inside. There is only one other way in and out, and that was under observation by a group of circus performers shooting craps in the corridor. Inspector Gavigan has lots of suspects and motives, but, until Merlini arrives, he is short of means and opportunity. 

Note: Clearly a locked room case, listed by Lacourbe, but not by Adey.


great merliniThe Clue of The Missing Motive
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: Murder without motive?

Merlini confronts Gavigan: “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 are 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.” It turns out that the real suspects live next door, and have multiple motives for killing each other, but not for murdering the man from Oklahoma who actually died. 

Note: Another listed by Lacourbe, but not by Adey. In this case Adey may have a point – not a true locked room story – though reasonably impossible!


great merliniMerlini and The Photographic Clues
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: Can a man be in two places at once?

Lester Lee is a Broadway gossip columnist and blackmailer. When he’s shot to death, Inez Latour, star of “Magic and Music” is hauled in for questioning just before opening night. George J. Boyle is the producer/star, and The Great Merlini is also on the bill. Boyle insists that Merlini get Latour back in time, and the magician soon discovers that most of the evidence is photographic – and possibly an illusion – since a man cannot be in two places at the same time. 

Note: Another one that is fairly clearly a locked room case, listed by Lacourbe, but not by Adey.


great merliniMerlini and The Lie Detector
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: No impossible crime

Merlini must determine which of two suspects murdered Carl Todd. His method relies on a small error by the culprit, one that if avoided may have prevented arrest. Still, not a great solution, and the clue arrives far too late in the story. 

Note: Another listed by Lacourbe, but not by Adey. In this case Adey clearly has a point – not a true locked room or impossible crime story. 


great merliniMerlini and The Sound Effects Murder
The Great Merlini
Collection: The Great Merlini

 

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Note: A brief impossible crime with a questionable solution.

Gavigan and F.B.I. agent Fred Ryan present Merlin with an impossible situation, tied to the death of sound effects engineer Jerome Kirk. Several critics have raised technical objections to the solution of this worn out old plot that seldom provides good results.

Note: Another listed by Lacourbe, but not by Adey. In this case Adey may have a point – not a true locked room story – but there is an impossible crime – just not a great one!


death nowhereClaws of Satan
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Death from Nowhere 

 

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Note: Several impossible disappearances

R. J. Hagenbaugh, circus manager, was always a difficult man. Don Diavolo,  promoting his newest feat, the Escape from the Double Crystal Water Casket, tricks his way into Hagenbaugh’s office, only to get blackjacked, and be discovered standing over Hagenbaugh’s corpse! Several more daring escapes from the police keep the action rolling, and allow sufficient time for some fairly good deductions!


death nowhereThe Enchanted Dagger
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Death From Nowhere

 

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Note: AKA: The Invisible Dagger 

Mr. Nicholas Sayre, a famous explorer, with a distaste for magicians, pays Don Diavolo a visit. Sayre has found a man with real supernatural talents. Shivara, claims to be an Indian mystic, and performs fantastic feats, including projecting an astral double, disappearing on cue, and moving objects with the power of his mind.

Diavolo is soon caught up in a strange series of events, as an archaeologist returns from the dead, a dagger stabs a man of its own will, and a corpse impossibly disappears from a hotel room. Inspector Church again vows to get Diavolo’s head on a plate, but this does not prove to be an easy task.


Death Thin AirDeath from The Past
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Death Out of Thin Air

 

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Note: AKA “Ghost of  the dead”

The London police can rest easy, the vampire has left for New York, but when he pierces the neck of a woman who has come to speak to Don Diavolo, magician and escape artist, he is forced to catch the vampire or face the chair.


Death Thin AirDeath from The Unseen (1940)
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Death Out of Thin Air

 

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Note: AKA “Death out of Thin Air”

Diavolo is suspected of the murder of a detective found shot to death in a locked office at police headquarters, right after some mysterious figure slams the door and sides the bolt in front of Inspector Church, who only hears a disembodied voice saying, “see you later, Inspector!” 


Magical MysteriesThe Ace of Death (1942)
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Magical Mysteries of Don Diabolo

Out of Print. Note: ‘The Magical Mysteries of Don Diabolo’ – also includes the four titles from ‘Death from Nowhere’ and ‘Death out of Thin Air’. Available only in used paperback & hardcover formats.

Book

Note: The Third Mr. Mystery – with a genuine puzzle plot.

The third, last and best Mr. Mystery tale is “The Ace of Death” (1942). This story has a genuine puzzle plot, and features  the collaboration of Eddie Duke with Mr. Mystery and his magic act.


Various notes on Rawson Short Stories:

Pictures Don’t Lie (1950) is not a short story collection as claimed in Wikipedia and several other lists. Instead it is a jigsaw puzzle from Mystery Puzzle of the Month #3 made by Pearl Publishing Co, Brooklyn, NY. Diecut cardboard, interlocking. Puzzle comes with a mystery story by Clayton Rawson which can be solved by assembling and studying the puzzle. In this mystery, the clock is the key. Original story unknown.

‘The Case of the Stuttering Sextant’ (with Baynard H. Kendrick) No information available. EQMM, March 1947. 

Mr. Mystery Series:

Mr Mystery (1940)
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Magical Mysteries of Don Diabolo

Note: “Mr. Mystery” is not an impossible crime story, just a fun pulp tale of bad guys after a professor’s secret formula. Contains a terrific portrait of Mr. Mystery in his white tie and tails, on the cover of Detective Fiction Weekly, August 3, 1940, where this tale originally appeared.

The Man With the Radio Mind (1941)
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Magical Mysteries of Don Diabolo

Note: This second Mr. Mystery is also a pulp story. “The Man with the Radio Mind” turns the pickpocket Eddie Duke from the first story, into an assistant to Mr. Mystery’s mind-reading act. No impossible crime.

Other Don Diablo Stories:

The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1944)
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Magical Mysteries of Don Diabolo

Note: “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” is a pure pulp action thriller, about cops battling the mob and police corruption.

Out of the Hat
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Magical Mysteries of Don Diabolo

Note: No information available on this title.

 Stand-in For a Kill (1940)
(Clayton Rawson as Stuart Towne)
Don Diavolo Mysteries
Collection: Magical Mysteries of Don Diabolo

Note: No information available on this title.


Clayton Rawson Bibliography


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