The Footprints on the Ceiling – Clayton Rawson (1939)

FootprintsOnTheCeilingFor 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.

FootprintsOnTheCeilingBackThat 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).

My edition

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.

14 thoughts on “The Footprints on the Ceiling – Clayton Rawson (1939)”

    1. I’ve resisted the temptation to buy The Headless Lady several times based on some negative reviews. Plus, the entire circus setting thing has never really appealed to me for some reason.

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  1. Thanks for the review, and I’m glad to hear that you recommend this title – as I have it on my shelf! Looking foward to reading it. Having read neither this nor ‘Death from a Top Hat’ – would you say reading the titles in sequence is important, to avoid spoilers?

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  2. Ok, this is now going on my must read list. I, too, am a sucker for mysteries featuring magic, ghosts, haunted house, or anything else resembling an episode of Scooby Doo. I’ll have to see if I can hunt down a copy of this one.

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    1. Other mysteries of the sort that you might want to check out:
      – The Plague Court Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Crooked Hinge, and Hags Nook by John Dickson Car
      – Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot
      – The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter

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  3. I’m still wondering if the American Mystery Classics range is going to reprint this one — Otto Penzler was involved in the Mysterious Press, who did the Full Rawson a little while ago, and the AMC did Death from a Top Hat…so I remain hopeful that we’ll get a new paperback edition of this, since I’m interested to read it.

    I was taking with someone about classic mystery fiction over the weekend, and we got to discussing whether some authors are better suited to the short form; I’d contend that Dorothy L. Sayers, Stanley Ellin, Helen McCloy, and Rawson are among that number. My impression from TFaTH and No Coffin for the Corpse is that Rawson’s great a drawn-out atmosphere, but then struggles to fit his plot in against it. Give him a limited number of pages, and he doesn’t get too distracted (hell, even the masterful ‘Off the Face of the Earth’ is a bit too long…).

    NCftC does contain an impossibility, by the way — the vanishing of a gun from a room where someone is shot — but the solution is memorable for a lot of the wrong reasons.

    So it turns out your happiest Rawson days might — only might, mind — be behind you…

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    1. I recall there being a long-ish Rawson story in the Black Lizard locked room book – I think Death out of Thin Air – that I somehow didn’t get to when I read ~60% of the collection. I’m hoping that will prove to be of a suitable length for Rawson’s talents.

      From Another World was definitely sized just right. You get this extravagantly baffling set up, a smidge of investigation, and then the solution is whipped out just in time for you to chuckle rather than feel outraged.

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      1. “Death out of Thin Air” is one of the stories Rawson wrote under the nom-de-plume Stuart Towne, in this case featuring another magician detective, Don Diavolo. He wrote four of these novellas – they’re almost full novels – and I’d argue that diminishing returns set in almost immediately. I’m more of a Rawson fan than you are, judging from your opinions here, but even I can see that by the fourth story the wheels have fallen off a bit.

        These stories are much pulpier than the stuff he published under his own name and feature a lot of outrageous stuff, but if you don’t mind that they’re a lot of fun.

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      2. Ben, given your history with this sort of thing, I can guarantee that you’ll trip over some pristine signed first editions for $0.04 in the next fortnight…

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  4. I mean to reread this some time. My feelings about Rawson are that his books are very much a case of diminishing returns – Top Hat being rather good, this one less so, Headless Lady being a bit meh, and No Coffin as something of a stinker. Actually, the B movie adaptation The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, which replaces Merlini with Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne, is lot more fun.
    I have read one of the Towne books as an eBook – the one with the vampire novella – and found it fine but really pulpy. I have the other as a paperback, bought the same time as the collected Merlini shorts for little money when Otto Penzler issued them a few years ago too but I see they’re fetching high prices now.

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