#921: The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) by Clayton Rawson

Footprints on the Ceiling

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This might be the longest-gestating punchline in blogging history, but it was also about time I returned to Clayton Rawson. Ever since the American Mystery Classics reissued Rawson’s debut novel Death from a Top Hat (1938), I’ve been waiting for them to release his second, The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939), so that I could finally experience it. And then I discovered a few months ago that I’d already bought Footprints as an ebook and it had been waiting, long-forgotten, on my e-reader of choice. And, as someone who feels Rawson’s best work might have been his short stories, I have to say that I very much enjoyed…most of this.

In my — admittedly, sometimes faulty — memory, Death from a Top Hat was an involved puzzle plot that relied heavily on extracting maximum meaning from two or three set pieces. Well, The Footprints on the Ceiling is equally, possibly even more, involved, but largely swift and light on its feet as it lays down puzzle after puzzle, and then unpicks them in an order that makes the head spin in ways both good and bad. While I’m not convinced that Rawson quite balances his plotting as tidily as he might, since some revelations or appearances come out of stark nowhere, with even Inspector Gavigan remarking that they have “enough puzzles for half a dozen murders”, there can be no denying that what’s here is packed in tightly and a surprisingly lucid explanation results come the epic denouement…and that alone deserves a huge amount of credit.

In short order, an appeal for a haunted house, a summons from magician-detective the Great Merlini, the losing of a suitcase, and an attack on his person (“[S]omething hard and flat, strangely like a cement sidewalk, pushed gently against my face. It was very comfortable and I went to sleep.”) sees mystery author Ross Harte heading out one evening to Skelton Island off the coast of New York. There, along with nearly being set on fire, Harte and Merlini discover a dead body on the top floor of an abandoned dwelling, with the eponymous “sleight-of-feet” in evidence above it. Before the night is out there will be suspicious people creeping around, gunfire, a chase through the woods, and someone will steal and sink the available boats, marooning the Skelton family and their various guests. Then chapter 3 hits and the madness really begins…

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration — perhaps those events take up the first five chapters — but the density of events in the opening of this is very impressive. Given that, at its apotheosis during the genre’s Golden Age, the puzzle plot was nonpareil in providing incident for speculation, Rawson’s ability to apply himself to such a menagerie of events is something rather special. It’s true that a couple of maps would have helped with the relational geography of everything, but this rather put me in mind of Hake Talbot’s two novels The Hangman’s Handyman (1942) and Rim of the Pit (1944) with its island setting and crazy events occurring at breakneck pace around the Skelton house: a séance, the condition which renders the dead body’s presence unlikely, and the sheer giddy delight with which Rawson throws yet more at his wall of plotting, with all of it sticking.

“Ross,” Merlini said sternly, “are you making this up as you go along? This is no time for—”

“I wish I were,” I said with feeling. “I’d go back and rewrite some of it. There are whole pages I don’t like.”

As betokened the Golden Age, there’s a thick seam of self-awareness throughout, with Gavigan, upon his arrival at the halfway point, calling the killer “a damn-fool idiot” for the overly-complex scheme employed, and thoroughly enjoying our amateur sleuth’s bafflement as incidents pile up around them. There are times I found it difficult to keep track of precisely what had happened — ebooks fail to stick in my mind, for some reason, so I hope to find a physical copy of this to reread in the years ahead (eh, American Mystery Classics? Hint, hint…) — and when Harte laments that “[t]here had been so much happening in the last few minutes, I was mentally winded from trying to keep up,” my sympathies went out to him. But then Rawson would come out with an idea so striking and brilliant (Arnold’s condition, say) that all manner of preceding events fell into line.

Plus, when he pauses for breath, Rawson writes very well indeed:

In the early history of man the professions of medicine and of magic once merged in that common ancestor, the witch doctor. Both physician and magician have inherited from him a common trait, the poker face. Merlini’s is, of course, unexcelled; but Dr. Gail’s was a close second. Although his voice now seemed to express genuine surprise, his face neither agreed nor contradicted.

I was thoroughly hyped for the various explanations and counter-explanations that poured out in the final third, and a lot of work has gone into making this come together so that the joints are a little less nicely welded than they might be, but on the whole I was willing to forgive that. Which makes it all the more of a shame that the explanations in the final two chapters grind to an early period Ellery Queen-style halt, with a frankly tedious exploration of some marksmanship that I couldn’t picture (that physical geography matters when you have six people running around outside at the same time) and then a pedantic reframing of certain events that feels like a step too far. I love multiple endings in a puzzle plot, but something about Rawson’s summing up became tedious…perhaps because the ideas didn’t feel new somehow. We’ve seen most of this, and the pedantry that come out adds nothing interesting…or, if it’s interesting, it’s no longer fun. I’ll reread it in the years to come and hopefully, knowing where it heads, I’ll be better able to put my finger on precisely what didn’t work beyond the severe slackening of pace to laborious effect.

For the most part, though, this is as thrilling and inventive as the genre would produce, largely improving on the sedentary feeling of Top Hat (though Rawson does love his talky exposition…) and working in some wonderfully novel ideas and more than a few laugh-out-loud moments (“So sorry, Amanda.“). I have a feeling this might be Rawson’s best novel — I only have The Headless Lady (1940) left, I believe — and it’s not a bad one to have at the peak of your career, though I can’t shake the feeling that the actual impossible elements of it are far, far slighter than the holus bolus feeling engendered would have one suspect. Still, I can’t hold that against it. Lap it up, glory in creativity at almost full tilt, and pray for a paperback reissue before too long.

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See also

John @ Pretty Sinister: The story is one of the most complicated plots I’ve read of any era, let alone the Golden Age. It’s filled to the brim with baffling incidents that all seem to be impossible. A fire that no one could have started, the transporting of Linda’s body to the haunted house, a bullet that seems to have traveled around a corner at 45 degree angle, a seemingly encoded message found on a typewriter ribbon, a nude body found in a locked hotel room, and of course the titular marks found on the ceiling at the scene of Linda Skelton’s death.

Bev @ My Reader’s Block: The first half to two-thirds of this classic crime novel is excellent. The set-up, misdirection, and mystification are all first-rate… However, the last third and dénouement has way too much going on and there is a bit too much of the “let’s show you how X is the culprit and then presto…no, they aren’t the murderer, but they did do this.” The best thing about the solution is that it actually makes sense and requires no supernatural hocus-pocus.

Ben @ The Green Capsule: That the middle of The Footprints on the Ceiling drags a bit is unfortunate, because Rawson is weaving a clever misdirection the entire time.  This is one of those reads where, come the end, you realize that everything mattered and fit together in an unbelievably complex jigsaw.  No detail has been wasted; it was all relevant, but simply in a way that the reader couldn’t have possibly imagined.  It’s a long and satisfying denouement, and Rawson throws a major curve at the end – a twist that I’m pleased to say clicked in my mind one chapter early.

13 thoughts on “#921: The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) by Clayton Rawson

  1. I like all the Merlini tales (not tried the Don Diavolo stories) though he himself is not very memorable, has to be said. I remember really liking DEATH FROM A TOP HAT especially and NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE too, probably because they were both turned into fun movies, as well as the FROM ANOTHER WORLD novella; and HEADLESS LADY the least (meaning I now don’t remember it at all) but I should re-read them all really before commenting as it’s been a good thirty years for me!

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    • There was a Don Diavolo tale in the Penzler-edited Black Lizard Big Ol’ Book Of Oh My Word So Many Locked Room Mysteries, and I definitely read it…but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about it now, only a couple of years later. In part it was the formatting of that book — such big pages, so many words! — but I can’t believe the story itself wasn’t also to blame.

      I’ll get to more DD in due course, but Headless Lady is a priority ahead of those, if only to finish off Merlini.

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      • I’m not surprised you don’t recall “Death Out of Thin Air.” The difference between Rawson’s two detectives is that he wrote the Great Merlini series as straight detective stories and the Don Diavolo novellas as pure pulp. And that one is very, very pulpy. Only exception is No Coffin for the Corpse, which is very likely a rewritten expansion of the unpublished Don Diavolo novella “Murder from the Grave.” It was scheduled to be published in the February, 1941, issue of Red Star Mystery, but the magazine had died before it could be published. The titles imply the same thing and Don Diavolo has a cameo in No Coffin for the Corpse. So it would explain why it didn’t really work as a Merlini mystery.

        Anyway, thank you for the reminder to reread Footprints on the Ceiling and finish off the series with The Headless Lady. Why is everyone saving that one as last?

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        • I wonder if everyone’s leaving Headless lady to last because it’s so damn difficult to find. Top Hat got a couple of reissues, but history has been less kind to Rawson’s other books beyond these Mysterious Press ebooks, so I imagine the extant copies of anything else are few and far between, and possibly already in the hands of collectors and/or secondhand sellers who want extortionate amounts for them. If the AMC would just reprint the other three books, the problem is easily resolved 🙂

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  2. Sounds like an absolute joy! I really must move Top Hat higher up on my TBR pile. It’s been too long since I have read an honest-to-goodness impossible crime.

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    • If it’s the impossibility you’re looking for, definitely go with Top hat over this one — more happens herein, and I reckon Footprints is a better book, but for all its frenetic display of invention there’s actually very little here which would qualify as an impossibility.

      I still say that Rawson did his best work in his short stories, and that even then he’s far from the top rank of GAD authors despite the excellent company he kept, but he’s certainly one of the “when he’s good he;’s good” members of the also-rans of the era.

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    • I always enjoy your takes on things, Bev, and it’s lovely when my searches for alternative perspectives brings me to My Reader’s Block — not least because it means you’re still making your way through the mountain range that is your TBR!

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  3. Rawson could definitely pack his books with promising set ups, but I haven’t yet seen him fully execute on the potential. It’s like one of those midnight dessert buffets on a cruise ship where all of the colorful little cakes look so tempting, but then they all kind of taste the same. Like Paul Halter wrote the premise and then handed off the story to Ellery Queen to finish.

    A year or two on and I remember the various puzzles, but not how anything played out – other than the footprints on the ceiling. Whatever curve ball I mention enjoying in my review, I simply can’t recall.

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    • Like Paul Halter wrote the premise and then handed off the story to Ellery Queen to finish.

      This is actually…a sort of genius description of Rawson. He loves his talky exposition, but has Halter’s energy when it comes to packing out plots with baffling and entertaining occurrences With less of the former he’d perhaps find me arming to him a little more, though I can’t deny that I’ll be on the lookout for a paperback version of this for yeeeeears yet, and very excited if/when I find one.

      The plot here has so many unexpected twists and surprises, I’m amazed there might be even one curveball you could have called out. Were it built upon a staggering conclusion in which everything i laid bare I might just assume that was the explanation as a whole, but Rawson’s decision to sprinkle revelations along the way…perhaps to reduce the chunk of monologuing at the end…precludes that. Whatever it was, I’m glad you enjoyed it at the time 🙂

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  4. I must reread this some time soon. I know I liked it, maybe a bit less than Top Hat but I still enjoyed it overall. Like Sergio, I found Headless Lady less satisfactory, though unlike him I didn’t really get on so well with No Coffin – mind you, I read that shortly after getting out of hospital having had a lung infection that damned near killed me so I guess I would have been less well disposed to anything at that point.
    I haven’t read all the Merlini short stories but had a good time with those I did. The Don Diavolo stories are, as TomCat say, full-on pulp so expectations ought to be adjusted accordingly.

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  5. I ought to read this sometime. I remember being VERY underwhelmed by DEATH FROM A TOP HAT for its solutions all being pretty basic, lame, and predictable despite being fellated by the book’s own locked-room lecture, so I never actually returned to Rawson’s work.

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    • DFaTH, and Rawson in general, seems to have a reputation that — for my money — far outstrips the actual quality on display in his work. If the guy was allowed to linger as the second-string author he was, I think I’d feel more favourably towards him, but somehow he keeps creeping into consideration as among the great and it baffles me.

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