Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Great Merlini

After writing about Hake Talbot's Rim of the the Pit a little while ago, it may skew the focus of the blog to write about another English language detective story here. I don't mean to write many reviews of non-Japanese books; but once in while I hope it won't hurt. Since a recently bought ipad makes reading ebooks practical for me, I downloaded a book I'd been wanting to read since I heard about it in a review on the blog At the Scene of the Crime, The Great Merlini (2012), a collection of  Clayton Rawson's Great Merlini short stories. The edition I read was the iBooks version published by MysteriousPress; since the introduction by Eleanor Sullivan is copyright 1979, I take it that this is a reprint (or digitalisation) of an earlier edition.

The Great Merlini is Clayton Rawson's detective, a magician and supplier of magic tricks to other magicians (does that sound familiar?), who sometimes helps the police with baffling, apparently impossible crimes. I had read two of the stories in anthologies, and also the four novels, Death from a Top Hat (1938), The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939), The Headless Lady (1940) and No Coffin for the Corpse (1942). All the novels are enjoyable books with a lot of ingenuity. Death from a Top Hat and No Coffin for the Corpse both feature excellent locked rooms, and Rawson repeatedly finds new tricks to play on our expectations as experienced detective story readers. And then Merlini really is an excellent detective: high spirited, but with his eccentricity more or less limited to his profession; an amateur, but one with a real specialist knowledge relevant to the kind of cases he gets involved in. The characters tend towards familiar types of mid twentieth century American crime fiction. In particular gruff, no-nonsense Inspector Gavigan, constantly irritated by the bizarre crimes he has to investigate is a figure I seem to have met many times (perhaps a William Demarest role).

The two short stories that I already knew are probably the best of Rawson's work. In particular, "Off the Face of the Earth" is a brilliant impossible crime. A man claiming to be from another world has predicted the disappearance of the judge who ordered his detainment as a material witness in another case. The police suspect that the judge himself wants to disappear in any case, as he is under investigation for corruption. Two detectives tail him to the station, where they see him enter a phone box. When he doesn't come out, they go to look and find the phone box empty, the receiver off the hook and the judge's voice at the other end, giving a mocking message to the detective. It's a very nicely worked impossible crime; and Rawson manages to go one better by having Merlini himself disappear from a phone box that the narrator and Inspector Gavigan are watching later in the story.

"From Another World", the other often anthologised story, is a neatly worked out "sealed room murder", literally sealed in this case, as there is paper tape pasted over the doors and windows, all part of a test of a claimed possessor of psychic powers, who is found unconscious in the room with her millionaire patron, who has been murdered. Suspicion naturally falls on the fake medium; but the real weapon is not in the room. This is very well done. I saw through the trick, so to speak, but didn't find it a worse story for that.

None of the other stories in the collection are on this level. Many are deliberately elementary short short stories, some used as contests for readers to test their skill on in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. All of these are competent for what they are; but the mystery or the deductive element is sometimes not very interesting (a tedious discovery of contradictions). There are two or three other longer short stories, of which the best was "Nothing is Impossible", I think. A rich investigator of UFOs is shot in his locked study. His son in law is with him, but i) unconscious, ii) naked (his clothes are next to him arranged as if he was still wearing them). The detectives find no gun in the room, only a set of tiny three toed footsteps. The set up is another of Rawson's attempts to keep the locked room up to date. Instead of traditional supernatural suggestions, we have extraterrestrials and Rhine's parapsychology as background in the stories. This makes the stories now an interesting window on the time.

This was the first ebook I've read. On the whole the printsetting was no worse than most publishers. I noticed two forgivable misprints ("If s" for "It's" twice), presumably an OCR error; but it looked like someone had gone through and made a reasonable attempt to get rid of such errors. My iBooks edition did have one big and rather disappointing mistake. The story "Nothing is Impossible" was evidently meant to have an illustration of the three toed footprint. This is missing there, but turns up in the middle of a later story, "Merlini and the Photographic Clues", where we really don't want it at all.

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