Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson (1938)


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Death Top HatDeath from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson
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‘Death from a Top Hat’ (1938) is a locked room mystery novel written by Clayton Rawson. It is the first of four mystery novels and a volume of short stories featuring The Great Merlini, a stage magician and Rawson’s favourite amateur detective. In a 1981 poll of detective writers and reviewers, organized by Edward D. Hoch, this novel was voted the seventh best locked room mystery of all time. It was also adapted for the film ‘Miracles for Sale’ (1939) starring Robert Young and the last film directed by Tod Browning of Dracula fame. The film simplifies the complex plot and replaces Merlini with “The Great Morgan”, played by Young.

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. The same year this novel was published, Rawson was also printed in ‘The Jinx and Genii’, an important recognition in the magic biz. In 1945 Rawson was 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.”

‘Death from a Top Hat’ begins with freelance writer (and narrator) Ross Harte pounding out a magazine article on the modern detective story, when murder quite literally arrives at his doorstep. A rather odd group are knocking at the door of Dr. Cesare Sabbat’s apartment across the hall, but Sabbat, a modern day necromancer and alchemist, is apparently not receiving visitors. Eventually, they manage to break through a door panel, push away a davenport blocking the entrance, and find Sabbat spread eagled on the floor. The corpse lies in the middle of a ‘Black Magic’ pentagram, surrounded by a circle of massive black candles – horridly strangled to death. It is murder, of that there can be no doubt, but the only other door to the apartment is locked and bolted from the inside and both keyholes are stuffed with quartered pieces of a handkerchief. Other than the gruesomely posed corpse, the rooms are quite empty of other inhabitants, and the windows, which are also locked and bolted from inside, drop directly to the river below, making it quite impossible to enter or exit by that route without the power of flight.

Inspector Homer Gavigan of the New York police, is given the unenviable task of trying to unravel this seemingly impossible crime that involves illusionists at every turn. Finally, it is Harte who suggests that “to catch a magician requires one”, which leads to the arrival of the Great Merlini, magic shop owner and amateur stage magician, in the role of consulting illusionist.

It soon becomes apparent that the list of suspects is limited by two factors. First, it must be someone with the ability to create such a complex illusion, and secondly, unless the killer really could fly, one of those who broke open the door and first entered Sabbat’s apartment, must be, if not the murderer, then at least a direct accomplice who subtly monkeyed with the crime scene. It would be reasonable to assume that these conditions would severely limit the candidates for murder, but there is nothing reasonable about this baffling case. The first three on the scene had included the psychic investigator, Col. Herbert Watrous, the medium Madame Rappourt, and the famous stage magician, Eugene Tarot, AKA: ‘The Great Tarot’. They were closely followed by the team of Alfred and Zelma LaClaire, who performed a clairvoyance act known as ‘The Woman with the Radio Mind’. In fact, the only absentee that was expected to attend this gathering, was another great escape artist, David Duvallo. However, Duvallo is not entirely absent – under Sabbat’s body lies one of his business cards! As Harte notes to himself, they were only short a couple of acrobats to present a full evening of entertainment!

Gavigan, assisted by Merlini and Harte, conducts the required suspect interviews, starting with those gathered at the scene, before allowing them to attempt any further escape acts. Most have a fairly sound alibi, but Tarot, after suggesting that Duvallo is clearly at the bottom of this too impossible crime, quickly flees the scene without providing the fingerprints ordered by Gavigan. A police officer gives chase to Tarot’s cab – only to discover that he has mysteriously vanished from the back seat!

Duvallo eventually arrives at Sabbat’s apartment, claiming that he had been delayed by a mysterious phone call, and pointing an accusing finger right back at Tarot, but the interview is cut short when a second locked room murder is discovered. This time it is a heavily disguised corpse, strangled and posed in the same manner as Sabbat – right inside Duvallo’s locked apartment! Duvallo’s flat had been under close observation by Detective Grimm since the alert for Duvallo had first been issued. Grimm now reports that he only moved in when a ventriloquist named Jones entered Duvallo’s building with a borrowed key. Still, access to Duvallo’s separate living quarters was blocked by another solid door with a jammed lock, and bolted on the inside. As Grimm and Jones struggled to gain access from the outside passage, they both heard a violent argument within, but when they finally entered, only the one body remained. In this instance, there was an apparent exit via a ladder propped up against a window. The only problem is, the victim was known to be alive well after a light snowfall hit the city – and not a single track has marred the white covered ground below! The victim was apparently either in two places at once or had once again sprouted wings!

The finale arrives in the form of an outlandish evening’s entertainment sponsored by the ‘The Society of American Magicians’ – which features the famous trick of catching a bullet with your teeth! Anymore would require a spoiler alert; I have likely already given away too much for those who think like devious locked room murderers. However, one part that should be noted by all locked room aficionados is Merlini’s famous lecture on the locked room in Chapter 13, which, along with two other lecture by Carr, and one each by Boucher and Derek Smith, are taken to be the four great gospels of the locked room sub-genre. Carr’s lecture by Fell was the first and dealt with most of the critical points, though Rawson’s addition of two more Class B methods, and his suggestion of a third ‘Class C’, are clearly important markers in the evolution of the locked room mystery. Those who are interested in this point might want to read this link to the ‘Clash of Titans’ review at ‘Death Can Read’. I also love all the esoteric asides that provide such a vast wealth of information on a variety of fascinating subjects, including: yogic bilocation, levitation, making the keys of a typewriter move without visible hands, and even a rather tricky problem in geometry.

How should we rate ‘Death from a Top Hat’? First, there can be little doubt that this is a technical masterpiece! The extremely complex plot is well designed and developed, and the solution, while it might test our credulity – stops just short of breaking it. It is quite simply one of the finest locked room puzzles ever written! On the negative side, am I the only one who sees Gavigan as a cut-out carbon copy of Inspector Richard Queen? As with so many other locked room technical masterpieces, the characters 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 often wonder if the ‘radio generation’ sometimes abandoned the old Victorian demand for the author to paint a vivid word picture of his scene and characters, a problem soon rectified by TV, which once more demanded that books try to compete at a descriptive level. This is not a new problem, and goes far beyond Rawson. Unfortunately, one of the greatest issues in locked room literature is that our ‘puzzle masters’ and our ‘word painters’ are too seldom found in the same place. For this reason I must give another split decision. While it is, at best, a four star piece of crime fiction writing; as a locked room mystery it still gets the full five gold stars!

*****

Text of the famous Locked Room Lecture, Chapter 13

Merlini nodded, his eyes twinkling. “Yes. Dr. Fell, Inspector, is an English detective of considerable ability, whose cases have been recorded by John Dickson Carr. Locked rooms are a specialty of his. And, in the book Harte mentions, he outlined a fairly comprehensive classification of the possible methods of committing murder and contriving to have the body found in a sealed room-minus murderer.
“He mentions two major classes: (A) The crime committed in a hermetically sealed room which really is hermetically sealed, and from which no murderer has escaped, because no murderer was actually in the room, and (B) the crime committed in a room which only appears to be hermetically sealed, and from which there is some more or less subtle means of escape.”
Gavigan puffed at his pipe and I listened carefully.
“The first class includes such devices as,” he ticked them off on his fingers:
“1. Accident that looks like murder.
“2. Suicide that does the same.
“3. Murder by remote control, in which the victim meets death violently, and apparently by someone’s hands, but in reality through poison, gas, or at his own hands, being forced to it by outside suggestion.
“4. Murder by a long list of mechanical lethal devices, some of which, as they occur in detective fiction, are pretty silly.
“5. Murder by means of an animai, usually a snake, insect, or monkey.
“6. Murder by someone outside the room, but which looks as if the murderer must have been inside; dagger fired through windows from air guns-that sort of thing.
“7. Murder by illusion, or the Cockeyed Time Sequence. The room is sealed, not with locks and bolts, but because it is watched. The murderer kills his victim and walks out; then, when the observer has taken up his place before the only door, he makes it appear that the victim, is still alive. Later, when he is discovered foully done in, it appears impossible.
“8. The reverse of 7. The victim is made to appear dead while he is stili alive, and the murderer enters the room just in advance of the others, and accomplishes his dirty work then.
“And, finally, No. 9 is perhaps the neatest trick of them all, because essentially it is the simplest. The victim receives his mortal wound elsewhere, in the conservatory or the music room; and then, still traveling under his own power, enters the room in question, preferably a library, and manages to lock himself securely in before popping off.”

“They don’t do that when they’ve been strangled,” Gavigan protested.
“No,” Merlini agreed. “Sabbat’s murder doesn’t seem to fall in Class A, unless you can conceive of some mechanical contraption that will strangle a man and then evaporate. Icicle daggers or bullets that vanish by melting may be practical, but offhand l’d say a man couldn’t be strangled very efficiently with a piece of ice.”
“You forgot method No. 10,” Gavigan added quietly. “Mur­der by the supernatural, which includes such damn foolishness as homicidal pixies who can dematerialize and Watrous’s theory of strangulation by etheric vibrations. Proceed, professor. Get the rest of it out of your system.”
“You’ve got the patter down very well, Inspector.” Merlini grinned. “It begins to get interesting now. Class B, the hermeti­cally sealed room that only looks that way because the murderer has tampered with the doors, transoms, windows, or chimneys; or because he has been thoughtfully provided with a sliding panel or secret passageway. The last contingency is so whiskered a device that we’ll pass it without comment. Doors and windows, however, can be hocused by :
“1. Turning the key which is on the inside from the outside with pliers or string. The same goes for bolts and catchcs on windows.
“2. Leaving at the hinge side of the door, without disturbing either lock or bolt, and replacing the screws.
“3. Removing a pane of glass and reaching through from outside to lock the window, and replacing the glass from the outside.
“4. Accomplishing some acrobatic maneuver that overcomes the seeming inaccessibility of a window-hanging by one’s teeth from the eaves or walking a tightrope.
“5. Locking the door on the outside, and then replacing the key or throwing the bolt on the inside, after breaking in with the others to discover the body.
“Hey!” the Inspector yelled. “Stop it! Just consider I didn’t mention the subject.”
Merlini spluttered a bit, then calmed down. “There is,” he announced unexpectedly, “one more class of locked-room flim-,flam. Class C.”…
…. “What is ClassC?” »
“It’s something Dr. Fell didn’t mention, as I remember. Superintendent Hadley was always interrupting him in the most interesting places.”
“If this Fell person always had to work up a lather of sus­pense on his listeners before he carne out with it, I don’t blame the Superintendent. Get on with it!”
“Class C includes those murders which are committed in a hermetically sealed room which really is hermetically sealed and from which no murderer escapes, not because he wasn’t there, but because he stays there, hidden-”
5. Locking the door on the outside, and then replacing the key or throwing the bolt on the inside, after breaking in with the others to discover the body.
“Hey!” the Inspector yelled. “Stop it! Just consider I didn’t mention the subject.”
Merlini spluttered a bit, then calmed down. “There is,” he announced unexpectedly, “one more class of locked-room flim-,flam. Class C.”…
…. “What is ClassC?” »
“It’s something Dr. Fell didn’t mention, as I remember. Superintendent Hadley was always interrupting him in the most interesting places.”
“If this Fell person always had to work up a lather of sus­pense on his listeners before he carne out with it, I don’t blame the Superintendent. Get on with it!”
“Class C includes those murders which are committed in a hermetically sealed room which really is hermetically sealed and from which no murderer escapes, not because he wasn’t there, but because he stays there, hidden-”
“But-” Gavigan and I both started to protest.
“Stays there hidden until after the room has been broken into, and leaves before it is searched!”
“Harte!” Gavigan turned on me. “What about it?” “Not a chance,” I said, and then, almost before my words had traveled a foot, I saw it. I grimaced; it was so ridiculously simple. Our attention had been so occupied with the triplicate sealing of the doors, the locking, bolting, and keyhole stuffing, that we had overlooked the obvious.”


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