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Locked Room Reviews:
Clayton Rawson: Footprints on The Ceiling
The Second Adventure of The Great Merlini!
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‘The Footprints on The Ceiling’ by Clayton Rawson is another great impossible crime and the second instalment in his mystery series featuring the Great Merlini, a master of illusion, magic store owner, and amateur sleuth of locked room mysteries. He is ably assisted by the wise cracking journalist, writer, and narrator Ross Harte.
Clayton Rawson was born in Ohio in 1906, and became a Chicago-based illustrator after his graduation from college, illustrating everything from ‘Murder of a Missing Man’ by Arthur M Chase to Alice Radford’s children’s book ‘Little Brown Bruno’. He began to practice stage magic as a child and later became a talented amateur craftsman. In 1938, Rawson was published in ‘The Jinx and Genii’, an important recognition in the magic biz. In 1945, Rawson became one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America and served as the first editor of the group’s newsletter, The Third Degree, where he coined its famous slogan: “Crime Doesn’t Pay – Enough.”
This novel opens as Ross Harte escapes a stressful theatrical writing job just before opening night, after spotting an ad, placed in the newspaper by Merlini, that reads: “Wanted To Rent: Haunted House, preferably in rundown condition. Must be adequately supplied with interesting ghost.” Sensing a good story, Harte heads to Merlini’s Magic Shop, where he discovers that the magician is seeking haunted houses for a paranormal radio investigation series. At the top of Merlini’s list is a deserted house on Skeleton Island in New York’s East River, and the magician has another good reason for investigating this particular site, after being asked by both Colonel Herbert Watrous, the psychic investigator from ‘Death From a Top Hat’ (1938), and the young and beautiful, Sigrid Verill, to crash a Madame Rappourt seance scheduled for that evening. Those who have read ‘Death From a Top Hat’ (see review) may remember this odd Hungarian medium who was an obvious fraud, despite Watrous’ assertion that she had true powers. Yet, now it seems that even the Colonel has begun to doubt his prize psychic and is afraid that he may be embarrassed by her presence on this small island where she is providing spiritual guidance to a treasure hunting project!
Harte and Merlini head for Skelton Island later that night, after Harte has an all too coincidental adventure involving a suitcase full of revolutionary era guineas. They are supposed to observe the seance on the sly, but as the water taxi nears the dock they see a strange light in a window of the haunted ‘old house’ near the landing. They are met by Watrous and decide to first investigate this sighting in the deserted mansion, which is usually kept locked, but now is standing wide open. Of course, the promised ghost makes a timely appearance, and they give chase to an illusive phantom, which they finally corner in a room with only the one door and a single window which opens impossibly high above the rocky shore. The ghost had entered the room only a few seconds before the pursuers, but now the only occupant is a rapidly stiffening corpse – apparently a suicide by cyanide – and even more disturbing is a clear line of footprints, stretching across the ceiling from the door to the window, right above the body!
The victim of this crime is the agoraphobic Linda Skeleton, a descendant of a famous pirate who built the first house on the island, just a few minutes from downtown Manhattan. She is a wealthy heiress, in charge of a family fortune largely made by her grandfather, who was known as the ‘Scourge of Wall Street’. From the beginning, Linda’s agoraphobia is central to the case. Her death may look like suicide, except for those odd footprints, but it soon becomes quite clear that this reclusive woman could not have left her home without suffering disabling anxiety! How is it possible that she came to be alone at night in the old haunted house at the other end of Skelton Island? Was she murdered by an outsider who did not know she could never be found in such a place, and believed it would be accepted as suicide – or is this just a nasty piece of misdirection?
(Note: The fictional Skelton Island, where the story is set, is roughly based on South Brother Island, NY. In the map included in the book, Skelton Island is shown south of the real-life North Brother Island, more or less where South Brother Island is located.)
The initial investigation of the murder is abruptly interrupted by a mysterious fire, but after they finally bring the blaze under control, Harte heads to the new house to phone for help – only to find a suspicious party gathered for the scheduled seance, who do not take kindly to his untimely entrance. The first sign of further problems is a cut phone line, quickly followed by the sabotage of the island’s launch and rowboat, which leaves them all completely isolated within site of the city.
Gathered on the island are an odd cast of characters, most with pretty good motives to kill the unlovable Linda. Arnold, Linda’s brother, was rankling under her ruthless control of the family fortune; a problem shared by his brother, Floyd, who has apparently left for Chicago. Floyd has recently become obsessed with a treasure lost in the river aboard the HMS Hussar in 1780. He is determined to salvage the wreck, but desperately needs Linda’s financial backing, which is where Madame Rappourt enters the picture. Linda is a true believer, and it is the resident medium’s task to convince the reluctant lady that the spirits want her to fork out the treasure hunting crash. Floyd believes he has finally solved this long standing puzzle and that the ship lies buried deep in the river silt, quite near the island, where it can only be retrieved with the help of a special underwater vacuum. This gadget is currently being built by Ira Brooke, an inventor, who has come to the island to collect his promised share of the money. His prototype is almost finished, though he still spends most of his days tinkering with his design on board his houseboat anchored just offshore. Then there is the beautiful Miss Sigrid Verill, a close relative of the Skeleton family, and the one who called in Merlini; Charles Lamb, an enigmatic retired broker; Dr. Gail, who rents a cottage on the island; and the Hendersons, a husband and wife who look after the house and property.
With no working phone, Merlini begins the investigation alone, and it soon turns into a long night of hide and seek, during which the phone lines are mysteriously repaired. This allows Merlini to finally get word to Inspector Homer Gavigan, the much enduring New York detective, who has no liking for impossible crimes, but after his arrival in the morning, the case becomes even further complicated when they discover a link to a naked dead body that has turned up in a vacant and well locked New York hotel room. This time the cause of death is apparently the bends, a disease suffered by divers who fail to properly decompress. It is a case perfectly designed to drive Gavigan crazy, and before he is done investigating this series of misadventures, nearly all the residents of the island are arrested! Only then does Merlini finally pull a very complex solution out of his top hat!
What makes this and the other Rawson novels so compelling is the richly layered plots which require multiple solutions, as it soon becomes evident that no one person could have been the author of all these bizarre occurrences. Did additional villains X and Y, and maybe Z, invade the island – or is there more going on amongst this isolated community than is apparent at first glance? Needless to say, there are plenty of red herrings – or ‘misdirection’ as it is called in the magic biz! In the end, Merlini must first solve a long list of minor crimes and eliminate suspects, one by one, before they can finally determine who actually killed the agoraphobic Linda. Other reviewers have correctly noted that a great deal of arcane knowledge is required to solve this puzzle, including knowledge about two rare medical conditions, the performance of circus and magic tricks, complex information about diving and decompression, the workings of a photographic dark room, obscure treasure hunting lore, and the tricks of fake spiritualism, but, to be fair, Rawson does quite an excellent job of explaining each point within a good ‘fair play’ plot!
If you tend to get Inspector Richard Queen flashbacks every time you run into Homer Gavigan and his detectives, you are not alone! Mystery critic Mike Grost has noted that Rawson, like Queen and Rex Stout (who are both given nods in this novel), are all part of the Van Dine school of mystery writing and share a common interest in contemporary New York culture and architecture. Still, the Gavigan-Queen clone does truly carry this similarity to an extreme! Other critics, including Robert Adey, have argued that Rawson only uses impossible crimes as flashy window dressing, rather than making the locked room central to the plot, though I find this point to be rather misleading. Footprints on the ceiling is a pretty good impossible device, in my book, even if most of the other tricks are not quite as impossible as one might desire! (See review in Gadetection) This novel also has far too many characters, and the plot is such an intricate web, that it is often difficult to keep all the incidents and clues organized in the reader’s mind – which makes it a bit confusing at certain points. As with Rawson’s other novels, the characters also tend to be a little flat and dimensionless – almost disembodied radio voices – rather than real flesh and blood people interacting within a well described setting. I noted, when reviewing ‘Death from A Top Hat’, that the ‘radio generation’, which clearly includes both Rawson and Queen, had largely abandoned the Victorian demand for authors to paint vivid word pictures of their settings and characters, in favour of making the script leaner and more driven. This problem was later somewhat rectified by TV, which again forced novels to compete at a descriptive level. However, this is not a problem specific to Rawson. Most of the popular American mystery scene in the late 30’s and 40’s suffered from this same attempt to imitate the fast paced, dialogue driven, radio programs. Rawson must therefore be viewed as more of a ‘puzzle master’ than a ‘word painter’ and this sometimes leaves the reader with a rather vague mental image of a complex crime scene which is over populated by characters with almost no extraneous flesh and blood.
How should we rate ‘Footprints on The Ceiling’? It is a very good technical locked room puzzle, with an extremely complex plot and few will crack the solution until the final chapters. Unfortunately, one part quite near the end is a dead giveaway, which means that Merlini’s grand denouement falls a bit flat. It is clearly not as good as ‘Death from a Top Hat’, but that set a very high standard, being one of the better locked room puzzles of that era! Still, despite all these minor flaws, this is still a very good locked room read, not a five star novel like ‘Death from a Top Hat’ (see review), but still a nice strong four star piece of mystery and magical illusion!
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