Death from a Top Hat – Clayton Rawson (1938)

DeathFromATopHatClayton Rawson was a real life magician, and he imbued his debut novel with seemingly every trick up his sleeve.  The set up of Death from a Top Hat is an impossible crime lover’s dream – multiple locked room murders, a “no footprints in the snow” crime scene, and a suspect who vanishes into thin air.  It’s no wonder that this book made position number seven on Ed Hoch’s famed 1981 list of top impossible crime novels.

We encounter the first puzzle – a locked room murder – within mere pages.  A magician is found strangled to death inside his apartment, his body spread out over the form of a pentagram.  Occult objects litter the room, but the real strangeness lies in how sealed down the crime scene is.  Both doors to the apartment are locked and bolted from within.  Scraps of handkerchief have been pushed into each keyhole – from the inside.  A couch is pressed up tightly against one door.  All windows are secured and show no sign of being tampered with.

The police are stumped not only by the crime scene, but also a cast of suspects made up entirely of magicians.  Rawson provides a full range – clairvoyants, escape artists, mediums, ventriloquists – and backs each suspect with absolute air tight alibis.

“As my guests will tell you, I was sitting in a large thoroughly examined canvas bag, the mouth of which was drawn tightly around my neck and the drawstring tied with many knots to the back of my chair.  The knots were sewn through with needle and thread and covered with sealing wax.  Ropes around my legs and body outside the bag held me to the chair, and the chair was screwed to the floor of a cabinet whose door was triple locked with all the keys held by the sitters.”

The police decide that the best way to investigate a cast of magicians is with one of their own.  They enlist the help of The Great Merlini, a stage magician who has worked with the police in debunking cons in the past.  Merlini finds himself in the role typically occupied by a Sir Henry Merrivale or Dr Gideon Fell, playing the role of the amateur sleuth with unfettered access to the crime scene.  The magician’s background as an expert at sleight of hand provides an interesting insight into the potential techniques of the villain.

“The audience overlooks a possible explanation, because they don’t think the performer would go to all that trouble for a mere trick.  But he does – and if the trick is murder…”

Merlini wastes no time in dissecting the set up of the crime scene, using Dr Fell’s famed locked room lecture from Carr’s The Hollow Man as a platform to rule out various solutions.  A similar approach was used in Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine, and in both cases the encyclopedic overview of potential locked room solutions was a highlight of the novels.  In the case of Death from a Top Hat, the technique leads to a number of theories being examined and discarded.  It’s passages like these that really get the mind working, as you try to imagine how each of the misdirections could apply to the crime.

And it’s not just that one puzzle that you have to deal with.  Rawson treats the reader to a whole slew of impossibilities over the course of the book, ranging from minor magic tricks, unexplained voices in an empty sealed room, to a suspect vanishing from a cab under constant observation.  There’s even a second locked room murder, with the puzzling circumstances built up just as imposingly as the first.

In a sense Death From a Top Hat reminded me of Hake Talbot’s impossible crime masterpiece, Rim of the Pit.  Both books hit you with a steady stream of puzzles.  Better yet, both authors provide solutions to multiple minor mysteries throughout the course of the novel.  You don’t have to wait until the final pages to experience the joy of a puzzle being unraveled.  Indeed, it’s some of the more minor cons being dispelled that provide the most satisfaction.

As formidable as the impossibilities are, the unbreakable alibis are just as confounding.  Every suspect has an air tight alibi for the two core locked room murders, and so unraveling even a single alibi doesn’t quite do the trick.  By the end of the novel though, Merlini has managed to create an even hairier mess by providing convincing arguments for everyone’s guilt.

“It’s a swell alibi, isn’t it?  If you can’t explain how it was done, you can’t convict.  You might know who the murderer is, place him right on the scene, and have a dozen witnesses, but just as long as he isn’t actually seen within or leaving this room, he’s quite safe – as long as the impossible situation isn’t punctured.”

Every minute that I wasn’t reading Death From a Top Hat, I was fantasizing about it.  I just loved it that much.  There was the constant stream of puzzles, a steady pace of discovery, and even a nice touch of the occult to throw a bit of atmosphere in there.  Unfortunately that love affair didn’t quite hold through to the end.

DeathFromATopHatBackJust like a magic trick loses its luster once you know the solution, Death From a Top Hat kind of disappoints in the end.  I can’t quite comment on why without verging on spoilers, but there was just a sense of “oh, that’s it?” at the end.  After creating such a grand set of illusions, the story somewhat sputters to a limp halt.  Yeah, there’s a lengthy enough explanation of all affairs, but it lacked much satisfaction for me.  In that sense it reminded me a bit of Rim of the Pit, in that the actual mysteries are more fun than the explanations.

Still, this is a fun read and an amazing accomplishment for a first time mystery writer.  I have The Footprints on the Ceiling and No Coffin for the Corpse burning a hole in my shelf and it’s tempting to read them immediately.  There’s also a film adaptation of Death From a Top Hat, released as Miracles for Sale.  I haven’t been able to find it in the US on Amazon/iTunes, so I haven’t gotten around to watching it (it does seem to be available on Youtube).  Noah Stewart has a nice review on his site.

So is this the seventh best impossible crime novel of all time?  Well, in terms of pure baffling set up and pace of reveal, it deserves to contend for the top 10.  If we’re going to factor in satisfaction of the conclusion that I’d think not – I can easily come up with ten books by John Dickson Carr alone that read well throughout and have much more satisfying presentation of the solutions.  And yet, Clayton Rawson really nails it with those first 200 or so pages.  Consider this must read material.

My edition

It took a few years, but I managed to get a Dell map back edition for under $10.  The map features both locked room crime scenes and they’re captured brilliantly.  As I read the passages, I would flip over to the map and be surprised that the illustrations captured every last detail, from the furnishings, wall art, or items sitting on the tables.  It’s probably the best map back that I can think of.

22 thoughts on “Death from a Top Hat – Clayton Rawson (1938)”

  1. Just like a magic trick loses its luster once you know the solution, Death From a Top Hat kind of disappoints in the end

    Yeah, I completely agree with this sentiment; I was blown away by most of the setup and mood, and told myself I enjoyed the solutions just because of how well everything preceding it worked together; but then after about a week it began to curdle a little, and weirdly now I know I like it but I don’t think I’d ever love it…even if it’s difficult to explain quite why.

    His short stories contain some stone cold masterpieces, however, should you get the chance to read them. Dunno what limited edition rare-ass paperback range they may have been published in, but track ’em down if you get the chance.

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    1. This would be a good book to do a spoiler post on, as it’s the only way I think I could really capture where this book went off mark. It’s not so much the actual how of the solutions, but rather the way that they were brought to light to the reader.

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  2. I remember liking this a great deal. However, I think Rawson’s novels do represent a good example of the law of diminishing returns. Footprints on the Ceiling is still pretty good but The Headless Lady disappointed me and No Coffin for the Corpse just plain irritated me. In fairness though, I did read the latter at a time when I was getting over an illness and wasn’t in the best of form.

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    1. I’ve heard similar thoughts about The Headless Lady from a few others. I’m under the impression that No Coffin for the Corpse is one of Rawson’s better regarded works, but maybe I’m mixing things up.

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      1. I think you are mixing things up. People are forever debating which is worst, ”Headless” or ”Coffin”… Personally I like the former quite a bit more. The circus setting makes it more interesting, I feel.

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  3. I well remember how I came to this book knowing it had a reputation as one of the great non-Carr impossible-crime mysteries, and how let down I was by the ending. Top Hat wasn’t terrible by any means, but it wasn’t a masterpiece, and I guess I was expecting one. I don’t have a copy handy, but I seem to remember that even one of the characters expresses disappointment when Merlini starts to explain how the cloth-in-the-keyholes murder was committed.

    I agree that a spoiler post on this one would be a great idea.

    I still liked Top Hat better than The Footprints on the Ceiling, which I really did not care for. I haven’t got to the other two Merlini novels yet. Regarding the short stories, I agree with the common consensus that “Off the Face of the Earth” (disappearance from phone booth) is one of the all-time classics, but I consider “From Another World” (murder room sealed from within with sticky paper) to be somewhat overrated – maybe because I was able to figure out how it was done. Most of the others in the collection Christian mentions are pretty minor, in my humble opinion.

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    1. Yeah, this one simply has to be discussed spoiler-style to do it any justice (for the corpse.. dah dum). With that said, I think it has the makings of a masterpiece up until the final chapter. JJ always busts my chops for saying this, but I’ll say it anyway – “If the author had only provided a brilliant solution…”

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  4. I feel the same way about this and Rawson’s other books…lots of great stuff in them, but they don’t come together very well in the end. (I particularly remember NO COFFIN FOR THE CORPSE having a red herring that turned out to be much better than the actual solution.) TOP HAT is probably my favorite, although THE HEADLESS LADY also has some good misdirection.

    MIRACLES FOR SALE, by the way, is a pretty good little movie that captures most of the spirit of the book, even though the main characters are different–Ross Harte is absent and Merlini is “The Great Morgan.” The really interesting thing is the presence of DRACULA’s Tod Browning (who, like Rawson, was a former stage magician) as the director; he had been ostracized in Hollywood because his horror films were so perverse and disturbing (FREAKS has to be seen to be believed), and this apparently was his attempt to get back into people’s good graces by doing a “normal” movie. Alas, MIRACLES wan’t particularly successful and Browning never directed again.

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    1. Hmm, these comments don’t exactly have me rushing out to obtain the rest of Rawson’s catalogue, but I guess it’s mostly too late for that anyway. I only have The Headless Lady left to pick up.

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