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.

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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.

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The Quintessence of Queen – Edited by Anthony Boucher (1962)

QuintessenceOfQueenI acquired a substantial portion of my Ellery Queen library through bulk purchases of 15-30 books at a time.  Swept up in the tide were several “associated by name only” compilations such as The Quintessence of Queen – assortments of short stories published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and probably tossed into the bundles by some seller who didn’t know much better.

I’m admit I’m a fan of the short story.  As a child I read a fair amount of Ray Bradbury and similar authors who walked the tightrope between science fiction, mystery, and horror.  As an adult, I found my way into the locked room genre via the short story form.  Since going full in with my reading of John Dickson Carr, I’ve stuck to novels based on the knowledge that authors such as him recycled story ideas occasionally – The Gilded Man being a well known example to appear in both short and long form.  Better to ruin a twenty page read than a two hundred page one…

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