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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.



Book Review: Chicago America’s Workshop

This 2021 book by Peter N. Pero provides a plethora of photos from Chicago’s industrial era. It’s divided into sections for Heavy Industry, Manufacturing, Food & Beverage, Printing & Publishing, Retailing, Music, and Candy. Each section opens with a brief discussion of the industries and their impact on the city and country.

gordon  meyer holding book

I particularly enjoyed how the book highlights the city’s dominance as the country’s crossroads. The breadth of influence is almost overwhelming, and will certainly give you a renewed appreciation of Chicago’s cultural and economic power.

There are numerous photos, many of which I hadn’t seen before. The captions are helpful, but unfortunately often fail to provide much information about where the company or factory was (or is) located. I would have appreciated more detail in this regard.

As a love letter to the city, and a chronicle of the past, this book is a worthy addition to any Chicagoan’s shelf. I got my copy at Quimby’s in Wicker Park, but of course, you can also find it at the Amazon.



Firex double beep meaning and replacement

Recently, the Firex smoke and carbon dioxide alarm on the first floor of my home started beeping. It was an unusual double-beep, not the usual low battery sound I’ve heard it make before. (Also unusual is that the beeping started during the day, not in the wee hours of the morning, as is usually the case. Just happenstance, I’m confident, but a welcome change.)

After much searching and reading online, I learned that a Firex double-beep signals that the detector has stopped working and needs to be replaced.

Unfortunately, Firex was absorbed by Kidde a few years ago. (The date of manufacture on my detector was 2004, so it should have been replaced years ago, but seriously, who checks their smoke detectors for an expiration date?)

Thankfully, the Kidde i12010SCO is a replacement for the hard-wired Firex FADC that I had. It just needs a plug adapter to connect to the Firex wires. (The wires power the device, even though it has a battery, and they signal other detectors in the home to sound off when any of the detectors are triggered.)

I opted for this particular Kidde because it has a built-in 10-year Lithium battery, which by the time the battery dies, the detector will have reached its expiration date.

I should mention that even with the necessary wiring adapter, there’s a tiny bit of work involved. The mounting ring that held the Firex needs to be replaced with the one for the Kidde, but in my case, that was just a couple of screws.