For those who dabble in the impossible crime genre, Clayton Rawson is known name. His debut novel, Death From a Top Hat, is commonly positioned as a top ten, if not top five, impossible crime novel (which is deserving in the setup, but lacking in the full execution). It’s surprising then, that his second novel, The Footprints on the Ceiling, with a title born from the impossible circumstances of… wait for it… footprints on a ceiling, doesn’t actually feature an impossible crime.
Rest assured, there’s tons of gimmicks and feints to dazzle the reader, but given the book’s reputation, there oddly isn’t an actual impossibility. Yes, at one point there is the question of why there are marks from soiled shoes walking a line across a crime scene ceiling, but to paraphrase one character, someone could have just stood on a ladder and made the marks. The circumstances of the crime scene – a woman found poisoned on the top floor of an abandoned (and haunted – we’ll get to that) house – adequately allow for such luxuries.
Of course, nobody ever said a book by Clayton Rawson has to feature an impossible crime; you just kind of assume it will. But if you’re curious as to why there are footprints on the ceiling – and I can assure you that there is a legitimate reason that has nothing to do with confounding the authorities/reader – this might just be worth your time.
Similar to Death From a Top Hat, the follow on The Footprints on the Ceiling is a contrast of potential and execution. The set up is just so damn good: a haunted house on a secluded island, a seance, eight million dollars worth of pirates treasure lost for two centuries, and a vicious storm thrown in for good measure. The first eighty pages will have you creasing the spine of the book. Then daylight breaks, the storm fades, and… bleh?
After such a promising setup, The Footprints on the Ceiling finds itself mired in a run of the mill investigation. There are suspects aplenty, and Rawson’s magician detective The Great Merlini has a solid 150 pages left to sort things out. Maybe I’m being unfair, but the atmosphere and swashbuckling imagination somewhat evaporated and we’re left with… I don’t know… The Case of the Seven Sneezes. Interviews that never really feel like they’re going anywhere, characters that run together even if they each have their own unique trait, two steps forward and one step back – I’m sure you’ve been here before. It’s not that it’s bad, but so much potential is squandered.
No, wait, who am I kidding? There’s a lot going on here, and even if the soul is swept from the opening, there’s plenty to keep you interested. Rawson litters the story with interesting bits, ranging from shipwrecks in the East River to an in depth look at how many ways you can poison someone with the chemicals used to develop film. There’s even an inverse locked room of sorts thrown in – not quite an impossibility, but the question of how a naked body ended up in a well-watched hotel room, despite there being no clothes or key to be found.
Still, the story leans heavily on these gimmicks to keep things moving along. I’ve since started reading a novel by Agatha Christie, and I’m struck by how much I’m savoring the milieu eight chapters in despite nothing of note taking place yet.
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 possible 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.
Overall, yeah, I recommend this one. My sense with Rawson after two books is that he’s a much more clever early Ellery Queen – a bit dry in the writing, but actually able to inject interest with his magician’s bag of tricks. I’m a sucker for mystery novels pumped up by the likes of ghosts, seances, and hidden treasure, and with this one, Rawson managed to give me what I’m looking for.
By some coincidence, I’ve read Rawson’s books in order, although he only published four novels total. There’s a bit of continuity between Death From a Top Hat and The Footprints on the Ceiling. Not only do we have narrator/reporter Ross Harte back for a second round, but two of the magician suspects from the first novel play a prominent role (I won’t mention who, as that would spoil the first).
I managed to snag a pristine Dell map back edition of this for a cheap price. The map focuses on the layout of the island and captures all of the details perfectly, from the forks in the path to the structures of the houses. I was definitely flipping back to the map frequently. There’s also a mini-map showing where the island is situated relative to New York City, which is a nice touch. It’s a bit unfortunate there isn’t the typical map back floor plan of the two main houses, but I guess you can only cram so much in.