The Headless Lady (1940) by Clayton Rawson

Clayton Rawson was a friend and colleague of John Dickson Carr and also a professional magician. These aspects combined to form a series of short stories and novels featuring The Great Merlini, a magician and detective, clearly based on Rawson himself. Over the past couple of years, I’ve procured two of these, Death From A Top Hat and The Footprints on the Ceiling. The Headless Lady is the third in the series and I was delighted to manage to find a cheap copy of it on eBay recently.

The setting is a circus – a member of the circus has stolen Merlini’s latest illusion, The Headless Lady, and once Merlini tracks the thief down, he finds that the patriach  of the circus has died in a suspicious car accident. His daughter later suffers a near-fatal fall from a trapeze. Add this to a genuine Headless Lady in Merlini’s car, and it gives rise to a twisting convoluted thriller.

First of all, I was sort of surprised that this isn’t a locked room/impossible crime story – the other two books, and the two short stories that I’ve come across are all classic examples of the genre, but there’s no impossibilities here – just a fairly straight murder mystery.

The story is steeped in circus lore – just as in The Bride of Newgate, there has clearly been a load of background research done, a lot of the information being given out as footnotes. Early on in the book, it feels a little like an information dump, but it settles down after a while and becomes less intrusive.

Rawson was an excellent plotter – he lays out the red herrings and the false solutions, but, like his other books, he’s a little too constrained by the fair-play idea – the crucial clues exist, but if you have to give page references to prove they were there, then they were probably a bit too obscure. His characters are a little bland though, and I found it very hard to empathise with any of them. Most crucially, the actual motivations for the crime are not particularly interesting – a plot strand introduced fairly late concerning a gangster seems a bit tacked on and takes something away from the circus plot.

Overall, this is an interesting book, but it’s not Rawson’s finest work. Check it out if you’ve run out of Carr, but try out Death From A Top Hat first.


  1. Thanks for reviewing this book. I’m a big fan of Rawson but I must admit, this is probably the least of his quartet of Great Merlini novels – if his first two books DEATH FOR A TOP HAT and FOOTSTEPS ON THE CEILING and the novella FROM ANOTHER WORLD and the story OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH are his best, then I would add his fourth, NO COFFIN FOR THE CORPSE as the next one up with HEADLESS LADY last, and not just because it doesn’t feature an impossible crime but because it’s a bit plodding. It is fascinating though quite how many stories of the time are set in circuses and carnivals though – almost a sub-genre, although I’m not sure if Carr even did if you get past the village fete in TILL DEATH DO YOU PART perhaps, or am I missing one?

    Excellent review – thanks very much.


  2. Somehow I can’t believe there wasn’t a story with Merrivale causing havoc at a fair, but for some reason there wasn’t. Can’t think of many circus/fair mysteries at all – The American Gun Mystery is at a rodeo – does that count?


    • The ones that sprang to my mind along with the Queen novel included NIGHTMARE ALLEY by William Gresham, Stuart Kaminsky’s CATCH A FALLING CLOWN, Anthony Abbott’s THE MURDER OF THE CIRCUS QUEEN, Richard Stark’s SLAYGROUND and Ray Bradbury’s DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS as well as the climax to THE MOVING TOYSHOP of course if we include funfairs!


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