#106: Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson

Death from a Top Hat 3Well, where to start?  Locked room murders (plural!), magicians, a hefty dose of self-reference, an extended John Dickson Carr homage-cum-lecture, a sprinkling of magical and mystical esoterica, and some really quite awesomely clever solutions…to be honest this — Rawson’s first novel to feature magician detective The Great Merlini and his Watson, journalist Ross Harte — should be a shoo-in for my favourite book of all time.  Something about the conflation of conjuring and seemingly-impossible crimes just gets me all a-giggle with excitement, and Rawson wrote one of my favourite impossible crime short stories of all time (‘Off the Face of the Earth’, since you asked)  so has previous with me, but this just comes up a little short to call it the masterpiece it probably should be.

In structure, it’s not unlike the kind of fiendish puzzles Carr was putting out at this time: the first half is spent establishing a crime or a situation that becomes increasingly dense, then the second half deconstructs that box quite effortlessly with some canny realisations and a few nice reversals of your expectations.  In this regard it is perfect, with two dead bodies left behind by a disappearing murderer by the halfway stage and then an extended analysis to unravel it all.  In due fairness you’re told the key point on page 2 — I’m spoiling nothing, our narrator tells you that he’s telling you the key piece of information — and seeing this rather cleverly utilised to make you feel even more dense for not twigging to what was going on sooner.

Rawson has a good turn of phrase, too; to wit, when one character introduces another to Harte early on we’re told:

The Colonel’s introduction, continuing for another paragraph or so, began to sound like a sideshow barker’s build-up, and he lost my attention.

Or the lovely sense of atmosphere evinced by tiny moments like the following:

We watched the door.  Two red-faced cops came through it.  The scent of cold air still clung to their uniforms.  Halting just inside, they looked at us, their badges and buttons winking like stars in the candlelight.

There’s the kind of wryness you’d hope for in this type of narrative, too, when non-magicians are asked to entertain the possibility of Murder By Summoned Demon, particularly when the demon in question is described thus:

A bristling cluster of spikes and a thorny, curved tail growing out of his behind must have considerably complicated the art of sitting down.  The monstrosity stood on two emaciated hairy legs that terminated in long-clawed talons, four-pronged like a bird’s.  One oddly gnarled hand clutched a large, unlikley-looking key.  The artist must have been, at the very least, a Surrealist hophead suffering from acute delirium tremens.  Beneath [the demon’s] name I saw the startling inscription “Drawne from the Life“.

Death from a Top Hat 2Now, that’s a reasonable concentration of quotes, and I’ve included them for this reason: the main problem I have with this book is the writing style.  It feels very static — where Carr would throw in lovely flourish after lovely flourish, it’s almost like Rawson hasn’t quite figured out his pacing, and so simple revelations and discussions seem to take aaaaages.  Most of the first half takes place in just two rooms, and by crikey doesn’t it ever feel long.  This leaden-footedness is a stumbling point for me, because the delights proffered should skip far more lightly than this and it’s a shame for it to feel more like a golem than a dancer.

Because everything else is very good — there’s a nice self-referential twist on the Yellow Menace aspect that we all know was such a feature of this era, and a superb flash of First World War paranoia that’s all the more striking given that this is set contemporary to its writing.  The solutions, too, are very clever with one minor gripe — if you’ve read it then I imagine you have the same slight difficulty with it that I do — but given how fully everything is spun about and how marvellously wrong-footed you’ve been all along I’m willing to forgive certain authorly…impishness, let’s say.

So, the seventh best locked room mystery of all time?  Perhaps, perhaps.  Difficult to judge at this stage (I finished it about, oh, two minutes before writing this) but it’s certainly criminal that it’s out of print [UPDATE: It’s now available in the American Mystery Classics range].  Worth finding, and as creative as you’d expect from an expert illusionist, but I’m hoping Rawson’s writing lightens for future instalments.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category A Hat (well, what else?).

35 thoughts on “#106: Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson

  1. Interesting review, as Rawson is a writer I have been meaning to try, but haven’t due to the fact there aren’t any particularly cheap copies to buy. Not sure you’ve quite convinced to take the plunge here, as narrative style is quite key for me. I could always dip my toe in with the short story you mention though.


    • On this evidence, Rawson is betterin the short form, yeah. However, there are three more Merlini books (and I have two of them — woop!) and some novellas published under a pseudonym, so I’m sure he’ll’ve produced something of a comparable standard somewhere. Just gotta find it.


  2. A few years back, I looked at the movie version, “Miracles for Sale” … you may find that film worth your time. (https://noah-stewart.com/2013/11/11/miracles-for-sale-1939/) I’ve loved Rawson for a long time but I know his breakneck antics, wacky contexts, and frequent asides are not to everyone’s taste.
    Oh, and those novellas published under a pseudonym? They feature a character in this book, Don Diavolo, as the protagonist. So you’ll know where he ended up, as it were.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah. yes, I forgot about it being filmed — thanks for reminding me, certainly looks like an…interesting…experience from the trailer. And only 71 minutes long! They didn’t hang about in the old days, did they!?


    • I’m wondering now if my rservations come from the fact that I was so convinced this was going to be The Most Awesome Book Ever. Go in with some reservations, I’d say, and you’re likely to be delighted.


  3. “…the main problem I have with this book is the writing style. It feels very static — where Carr would throw in lovely flourish after lovely flourish, it’s almost like Rawson hasn’t quite figured out his pacing, and so simple revelations and discussions seem to take aaaaages.”
    Exactly ! I once attempted to read this book, but the writing style turned me off. I gave up after reading about 25%. However, since you say that the plot is very good, I’ll attempt again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What I remember best from this book is that the plot was very busy. Rawson really chugged a lot of problems at the reader in his first outing, but that was also one of the things I liked about this one.

    Wether or not this one is deserving to be included in such an illustrious list of locked room mysteries is up to the individual reader, but I promise, you’ll look back a lot kinder on every flaw in this book after you have read Clawson’s abysmal No Coffin for the Corpse. A book that began very promising and then turned into one of the worst locked room mysteries I’ve ever had the misfortune of stumbling across.

    You can read everything I hated about that book in this one-man book-club thread from 2010 on the JDCarr forum, which I used as a precursor of my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, wonderful – I have NCftC and shall go into it with suitably lowered expectations! There is something about going into a book with the anticipation of it being bad that I really rather enjoy; not sure what it is, but I find a terrible book that I was told was terrible in advance much easier to tolerate. Possibly this is why Christie’s later works hold no fear for me… Presumably that forum thread contains spoilers, right? I’d like to encounter its flaw as unspoiled as possible so as to get the most out of the experience.


      • I also see the link doesn’t work or did you remove it? Anyhow, it’s on the JDCarr forum and can be found on the GAD board. Yes, it’s a spoiler galore and to this date perhaps the most thorough deconstruction I did of a book I hated. I’d be surprise if you can handle or tolerate the stupidity Rawson threw at his readers in that one.


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    • There is an absolute ton of good stuff, and one key element of the solution is awesomely clever and beautifully prepared. I was just struggling to care a bit come the end because of how long everything took. On balance it’s very good, but I think Rawson may be more suited to the shorter form of crime fiction.

      I loved the pacing and atmosphere of Boucher’s Nine Times Nine, incidentally, but Rocket to the Morgue was, well, pretty dull. I also read one of the O’Breen books and remember nowt beyond the fact that it was enjoyable. On balance he’s fine, but will always come of negatively against JDC on a count of Carr’s sheer volume of work against Boucher’s parsity.


  6. I have finished the book. Yes, the plot is brilliant , but the writing style is poor. And often I felt like punching Merlini on his face ! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m imagining you’ve read Rawson’s short stories already — he seems much more comfortable in the shorter form to me, as if trying to retain so many threads over a longer narrative is a bit overwhelming.

      Still, it’s significantly better than the last multiple-impossible-crime novel I wrote in the genre’s heyday that’s gone down as a classic. I’m still hoping he fares better with his next attempt, though (especially as TomCat has already destroyed any illusions I might be having about No Coffin for the Corpse!).


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  11. Minor correction: Don Diavolo is *not *a character in DEATH FROM A TOP HAT, though the book does include a character who has a name that sounds close to his (and which also confused me at first for that reason).

    I recently reread DEATH FROM A TOP HAT (first reading was probably forty years ago) and agree with most of the comments above: ingenious but irritating. I read the other three Merlini novels and the collected short stories decades ago as well and would be happy to reread them if I can ever find my copies (somewhere in one of many boxes in my attic). I did reread the “Don Diavolo” stories just a few years ago when Battered Silicon did an omnibus reprint of them; they’re fun but sloppily done, with at least one of them using a variant on Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man” chestnut (which I didn’t believe in when GKC did it, and Rawson/”Towne’s” version is even more outrageous.)


    • Thanks, Denny — not having read the DD novellas I appreciate the clarification (though, gleeps, Rawson sure set that up by reusing the character name, hey?).

      Anything that recycles ‘The Invisible Man’ is obviously not trying too hard, eh? Sure, Chesterton wanted to make a point about perception, but it has about it a ring of deep falseness when the solution to a mystery is concerned. I believe the official term would be “bait and switch”, but most people would be less kind…


  12. Pingback: Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson – Bedford Bookshelf

  13. I agree with this pretty well. I think for puzzle first types it’s a must read.

    I confess I am curious to know if *you* still agree with this JJ of days gone by! As a Croftsian you must find the dull prose alluring and the cleverness off putting! 😉😜😈


    • You make an excellent point, Ken. I have the recent American Mystery Classics version in paperback, and could be tempted to give it another read…but I also have lots of other, unread books to give a first read, too. However, I shall return to TFaTH at some point in the coming years, I promise you that…


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