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Book Review: Death From a Top Hat

First published in 1938, this novel by Clayton Rawson is considered to be one of the finest “locked room mysteries” of the Golden Age. It’s also a “fair play” mystery, in that the reader receives with every bit of information necessary to solve the whodunit, provided that they have their wits about them.

gordon meyer with book

This book is the first in a series of stories around a magician who goes by the name Merlini. As a lauded amateur magician, and leading mystery writer, Rawson combined two of his passions to create the character and series. See his wikipedia entry for much more on this remarkable man.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found the references to magician culture to be both accurate and amusing. (It’s amazing how little it has changed.) There are no spoilers ahead, but here are a few samples of things that I particularly enjoyed:

  • “Half seas over” is an expression meaning “fairly drunk.” This is news to me, but I like it.
  • Referring to a man, one of the characters says, “I think (his) psychopathic ailments included the one called satyriasis, so you may have to question some blondes.”
  • Referring to a woman, one of the characters says, “(She)’s that way; she has considerable difficulty remaining for long in a vertical position.”
  • I loved Rawson’s eclectic footnotes, which either referred to other mystery stories or non-fiction reference material. One of them was for Wicker Park-Bucktown neighbor and Cliff Dweller’s founder, Hamlin Garland, and his book on psychic research.
  • Revealing one of the true secrets of conjuring, Merlini speaks: “That's peanuts for a magician, Inspector. Sometime I'll explain for you the inner workings of a good trick, and show you with what infinitesimal details a conjurer will concern himself. That, in itself, is the whole secret of a number of tricks; the audience overlooks a possible explanation because they don't think the performer would go to all that trouble for a mere trick.”
  • Regarding the sad tendency of magicians becoming wannabe skeptics: “Magicians are prejudiced bigots and wouldn’t admit there was such a thing as magic without trickery, even if they saw it.”
  • I had to suss out a reference to Hauptmann being talkative. It’s about the Lindbergh kidnapping, which would have been common cultural knowledge in 1938.
  • “Conjuring as a hobby appeals most to people with inferiority complexes. And the more they over-compensate the better magicians they make. Even the display of parlor tricks at a party imparts a glow of superiority, quite false of course, but not all of us realize that.”
  • In the final chapter, where the solution to the crime is given, Rawson includes footnotes that detail where the clues were revealed in the text! Such a nice and thoughtful touch. And I’ll only add that if you’re a reader who wants to try to suss out the answer, you best be paying attention early, and throughout.

Rawson’s book has seen various printings, but the best currently available is the American Mystery Classics edition, as it includes an insightful foreword by Otto Penzler. If you’re in NYC, get it from the wonderful Mysterious Bookshop, or of course, the Amazon.


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Comments

Craig Conley

Great -- love all your bulleted notes! Really nifty that the author includes details on where all the clues were hidden throughout the story!

Neil Tobin

So much fun! I'd only add that reading the great locked-room mystery master John Dickson Carr's seminal The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins) first will deepen your enjoyment of this book even further. Carr and Rawson were close friends, and Rawson makes several sly jokes by referencing Carr's work (which was only three years old when Rawson's book was published, but has since been voted by mystery writers as the single finest book in the genre).

As Gordon's list of bullets suggests, Rawson is a very funny writer. (He was also a creator of some very funny magic, including the popular thought-projector/egg-beater routine that comedy magicians still use regularly today.) I'm sure Carr belly-laughed his way straight through this book, and that you'll enjoy it too.

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