Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Footprints on the Ceiling: Review

It's not enough that Clayton Rawson's Great Merlini has to answer the question of how a woman with an acute case of agoraphobia could be found dead in a room in a house on the opposite end of the island from where she lives. It's not enough that the room she's found in has a trail of footprints crossing the ceiling. It's not enough that someone sets fire to the house while Merlini is investigating the death. It's not enough that the case winds up including a fraudulent medium, a hunt for sunken treasure, a gangster with (of all things) the name of Charles Lamb, a man with blue skin, and a bullet that can either go round corners or straight through steel and concrete. No, wait, there's more! There's also a nude man found dead in a locked hotel room...and not just dead. Dead of the a perfectly dry room, a mile or so from the nearest water. As Inspector Gavigan says:

Instead of the usual murder victim in a locked room...we've got a body, dead from natural causes, and the question--How'd he get in, and how'd his clothes get out? The desk clerk, the elevator boy, and the floor clerk on twenty-one say they never saw him before--that might be on account of the missing mustache. But they'd certainly have noticed if he was running around the place without any clothes.

What's a magician detective to do? Well...he better get busy figuring out what tricks the murderer has up his sleeves...

...because all the amateur dicks in town are gunning for your job. When the papers hit the streets, all hell broke loose at headquarters. Philo Vance has been crowding his friend, the D. A. He wants to kick this case around. Says it's right up his bloomin' alley, don't you know. Ellery Queen's campaigning to get his old man assigned to it so he can get a look see, and Malloy says that awhile ago he saw Archie Goodwin circling the island in a speedboat, looking the situation over. Nero Wolfe's seen that mention of the eight million bucks. (Inspector Gavigan to Merlini)

But, perhaps I've gotten ahead of myself. Let's go back...Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) is Rawson's second mystery novel featuring The Great Merlini, a professional magician who also runs a magic supply shop and who occasionally works as an amateur detective and debunker of spiritualism. It is in this last capacity that he has been called upon to visit Skelton Island and observe Madame Rappout to prove once and for all whether her psychic manifestations are the real deal or just another way of taking in the gullible. He brings along his friend Ross Harte, publicity writer to provide the wise-cracking sidekick and narrator. As the seance begins in the main house,  Merlini, Ross, and their host Colonel Watrous discover Linda Skelton, wealthy heiress, believer in the occult, and island recluse, dead in an outbuilding with all evidence of suicide. There's just one tiny problem. As described above, it is revealed that Linda suffered from an acute case of agoraphobia. There is no way that she could have traveled across the island to kill herself. 

Then, of course, there's the other dead body in the hotel room. It looks like natural causes, but it is soon revealed that he's died of "the bends"--an ailment peculiar to deep-sea divers. How did he managed that on dry land? And where are his clothes. Even if he did die "naturally" from the ailment, someone had to have taken his clothes...which makes things mighty suspicious.

Inspector Gavigan spends the rest of the book alternately suspecting, cautioning, and arresting everyone with a hint of a motive--sometimes separately, sometimes all at once. Merlini spends his time building up scenarios in which any of them might have done it, leading us on and making us believe that not them, but he did it. Blowing smoke in our eyes, using mirrors, and artful doses of misdirection, until the grand finale and the big reveal.

The first half to two-thirds of this classic crime novel is excellent. The set-up, misdirection, and mystification are all first-rate.This was my first Merlini novel and I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to the magician and Ross Harte (who reminds me of Archie Goodwin in wisecracks--but I don't think he's quite as swift on the uptake as Archie). 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, 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. The other quibble I have which makes this a  ★★ and 1/2 read instead of four stars (although I will round up on Goodreads) is the amount of specialized knowledge--ranging from the medical to darkroom techniques to deep-sea diving--that is needed to recognize various clues. can tell that Rawson had a lot of fun with this one and the reader is caught up in the fun and in trying to untangle the intricate plot. Overall, a recommended read. 

This fulfills the "Book Read by Another Challenger" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card as well as my fifth & sixth Bingos. Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise was my leader on this one. Click on her link to see what she has to say about Rawson's little bit of deception.


J F Norris said...

I was so underwhelmed by DEATH IN A TOP HAT, the first on the Great Merlini series, I never bothered reading any of the other novels. Rawson's short stories, however, are very good. This sounds a lot of fun. Never read a book where well known fictional detectives of other authors inhabit the same world. Clever and fun. I read somewhere that NO COFFIN FOR A CORPSE (4th book) is perhaps the best and that THE HEADLESS LADY (3rd) is definitely the worst.

Bev Hankins said...

John: This is the only Rawson book that I've found so far. Looks like I should grab the fourth book if I happen to see it.

Katherine P said...

This is a series I haven't tried yet but does look like fun. I'll be prepared for the excessive motive speculating at the end though. Thanks for sharing!

Yvette said...

Was trying to post a comment but had some problems with your website, Bev. Anyway, I'm trying again.

This Merlini book sounds a hoot. Never heard of 'em before. But if I run across one, I'll take a look. I'm getting a little tired of the multiple endings schtick, though Christianna Brand does it best, I think. Have you read any Brand, Bev?

fredamans said...

A agoraphobic found dead elsewhere... someone obviously put her there.... That alone has me curious too.
Great review!

Gram said...

Like John, I always enjoyed the Merlini short stories. I never even looked for novels length stories.
EQMM has lots of his ss if you can get the old ones.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with John that HEADLESS LADY is the least of the Merlini novels, but I loved TOP HAT (I'm a huge magic buff) - great review Bev - reminded me of just how much I enjoy these sorts fo books - must go back to them soon!