Stage magician and amateur detective The Great Merlini made his debut in Clayton Rawson’s 1938 novel Death from a Top Hat. Rawson wrote a total of four Great Merlini mysteries, the third (and the subject of this review) being his 1940 The Headless Lady.
Clayton Rawson (1906-1971) was himself a magician as well as a mystery writer so it’s no surprise that not only is his fictional detective a magician but that illusions play an enormous role in his stories.
Stage magic is entertaining enough but in The Headless Lady we get an extra added bonus - a circus setting.
A woman is very very anxious to buy a particular illusion from The Great Merlini’s magic shop. So anxious is she that she is prepared to pay more than twice the asking price and even to steal the apparatus. This naturally intrigues Merlini. The fact that someone is now tailing him intrigues him even more. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that the woman is connected with the Mighty Hannum Combined Show circus. Merlini absolutely loves circuses of course so that’s where he and his faithful Dr Watson, Ross Harte, are now headed.
Their arrival coincides with a great misfortune for the circus - the owner, Major Hannum, has been killed in a car crash. This comes as quite a surprise - the Major was a notoriously slow and careful driver and yet his car apparently lost control at high speed. By pure chance the first person at the scene of the tragedy was a reporter and naturally he took some photographs. These photographs disturb Merlini greatly. Was the crash really an accident?
And what could have been the reason for another curious accident a short time before the Major’s demise? Why is the circus playing towns that are much too small to be paying propositions? And how to explain some curious financial transactions?
Merlini’s suspicions are further inflamed by another unlucky accident that occurs on the following day. A murderer is loose in the circus but this is a very cautious murderer indeed - it is going to be extremely difficult to prove that these incidents are not in fact accidents. Proving the identity of the killer will be even more challenging.
This book itself is a fine example of the method of the professional illusionist - misdirection. Rawson throws so many outrageous incidents and so many colourful details of circus life at the reader and keeps the pacing so frenetic that we are unlikely to notice any deficiencies that might afflict the plotting, and we’re very likely to be distracted from noticing the vital clues. It’s also likely to make us overlook the fact that this story is not quite as fair-play as purists would demand - there’s some vital information that is to some extent pulled out of the hat at a rather late stage without any adequate foreshadowing. Apart from this the plotting is very sound.
Merlini is a fine and very entertaining detective hero with a blithe disregard for irritating legal niceties. If the best way to find an important piece of evidence is to indulge in a spot of breaking and entering then that’s what Merlini will do. He is an old carnival hand and like most carnival folk he has an exceptionally flexible attitude towards such matters and is not overly inclined to trust the police to the extent of actually telling them anything. Merlini’s ability to pick any lock he encounters and to see through any kind of trickery combined with the subtle psychological tricks that one picks up as a carnival person could have made him too perfect and infallible but Rawson is aware of the danger and makes sure that his hero does make the occasional error of judgment.
The sheer amount of background that Rawson gives us on circus life, the digressions on carnival slang and the footnotes could threaten to slow the action but it’s all such interesting stuff that I for one have no complaints. I have to admit that I like novels with footnotes! And despite the digressions the story really does hurry along quite satisfactorily.
It’s interesting to compare this one with Anthony Abbot’s slightly superior 1932 About the Murder of the Circus Queen which is probably the best circus mystery I’ve come across so far.
The one possible downside is provided by by minor reservations about the fair-play nature of the plot but that is more than compensated for wonderful atmosphere and plenty of clever tricks. Highly recommended, although his earlier The Footprints on the Ceiling is perhaps slightly better.