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.