I generally try to do the books I have by an author in chronological order, and so should be writing about The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) here, but when TomCat described NCftC in the comments of my review of Rawson’s first Great Merlini novel Death from a Top Hat (1938) as “abysmal” saying that it “began very promising and then turned into one of the worst locked room mysteries I’ve ever had the misfortune of stumbling across”…well, I just had to try it out. I mean, sure, TomCat doesn’t like Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1941) and so is immediately suspect, but I think I’ve shown myself willing enough to believe the very best of any books I try to read, and it might be interesting to go in expecting a dud. So, let’s get into it…
And it does begin in a very promising way: Ross Harte, narrator of most of the Great Merlini stories, falls foul of his millionaire heiress girlfriend’s father and — retiring in disgrace — we’re treated to a retrospective filling in of some events that take place in his absence, providing the eponymous corpse sans cercueil. This gives us what will probably be the setting of the majority of the book, and a cast that you feel is unlikely to expand much and yet contains enough possibilities to provide potential for misdirection and shenanigans; as I say, very promising, and with some great descriptions to boot:
He had planted a tight girdle of conical evergreens about the house which…now resembled a horde of fat-bellied elves in high, pointed hats who crowded close about and peered in at the lower-floor windows.
The millionaire’s complexion grew dark with all the rapidity of litmus paper in the presence of undiluted hydrochloric acid, and his voice thundered like a heavy war chariot racing over cobblestones.
For me, whether I’d been looking for it or not, the first problems come shortly after the introduction of Merlini when the situation that he’s called in to investigate — a haunting — is described in a vague and incoherent way. There’s an argument that this is in keeping with the character doing the describing, and Rawson lampshades this by having Merlini comment on it, but in all honesty it’s just bloody lazy and feels like he’s trying to cheat something past you by deliberately not communicating it well.
In fact, the extended haunting and initial amateur investigations continue to be poorly realised and badly explained up until about halfway through. For some reason, Rawson’s disappearing ghost setup is nowhere near as interesting as the same problem posed by, say, Hake Talbot or Anthony Boucher (I mean, sure, Boucher’s wasn’t a ghost, but we don’t really expect this to be one, either). This entire section ends with a slightly interesting locked-room shooting — yet another vanishing — and is mainly of interest for the historical anachronisms it casually throws out: an extended description of how lock-picking is achieved, for instance, or the fact that the police department has no female officers.
And then…well, then things start to improve. The screwball antics begin lining up in a way that starts to feel like a plot being constructed, with an actual investigation and the resolution of some of the events to this point. Some of it feels like complete nonsense — the thing about beating the alarm, for instance — but some of the smaller moments, like Harte and Merlini using every trick in the book to eavesdrop on some interviews or Harte escaping from under police guard by pretending to disappear, display the sort of lightness this narrative could do with resorting to more often. Because once we start getting actual explanations, it starts to come unstuck.
For a start, one thing is explained via a lecture from Merlini that’s potentially supposed to echo various locked-room lectures from the genre’s recent past but instead is an unmitigated trudge through authorly research. This is the voluble sleuth as its most author-insert, and could have been handled about ten times more effectively in a tenth of the words. Perhaps wise to this, Rawson then throws in a couple of great surprises, but once these are tied into a narrative explanation I hit my main problem: so much had gone on in such a haphazard fashion that I was no longer sure what needed explaining and what didn’t. Suddenly being told that an explanation didn’t work because of an event that I didn’t even remember happening was a bit of a let down, but then I never really feel like I got much of a grasp of what was going on here.
From hereon in it’s a blur of false solution after false solution that feels not unlike the ending of Clue (1986) and should be a head-spinningly good time. Instead, it felt to me more like a mess at the end of a lot of other mess, and then the actual solution that is finally settled on is…kindly…a disappointment of brobdingnagian proportions. I get that Rawson has tried to compose something of a billet-doux to the impossible crime, but all the cleverness here — and there is a great deal of it, make no mistake — is lost amidst too much jiggery pocus that is ill-structured and plays too loose a hand to be a compelling narrative.
So, fun, but amateurish, I’d say; not the best summation of a locked room novel by a professional magician about a professional magician, but there you have it.