Presenting the one and only Don Diavolo, master magician. Gasp in amazement as he makes an elephant vanish into thin air! Swoon in disbelief as he materialises thirty dancing girls from a tiny cabinet! Shudder as he eludes the police at every turn who seem to be convinced that every time something odd happens, he must be behind it! For mysterious things are afoot and Diavolo is neck-deep in trouble…
First of all, there is the death of a young woman in Diavolo’s dressing room. As New York City is plagued by a mysterious bat-faced individual who has a habit of scaling impossible heights, the girl is found with a bite mark on her neck and only a small window from which the killer could have escaped. And as soon the vampire is put back in his coffin, Diavolo has to contend with an invisible man, killing a police officer in the middle of police headquarters and vanishing without trace…
Clayton Rawson, one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers Of America, didn’t actually write that many mysteries. His output, as far as I can tell, consisted of four novels and a collection of short stories featuring The Great Merlini, and four novellas featuring Don Diavolo, two of which are collected in this volume – the other two are collected in Death From Nowhere. For an unknown reason, to me at least, the Diavolo books were published under the pseudonym Stuart Towne although, according to Wikipedia, Diavolo had appeared in one of the Merlini stories – but I can’t verify that at the mo.
Rawson has an odd reputation. He seemed to be one of the more sought after “lost” authors, until Mysterious Press re-released his books. They vanished again quite quickly, but recently have reappeared as ebooks again. But despite his reputation… the books are a bit of a mess. Death From A Top Hat, the first Merlini novel, is well-regarded but is all over the place. It’s been a while since I read it, but you can see Cross Examining Crime’s viewpoint here. I think his best work is his short stories, in particular Off The Face Of The Earth, so I was interested to finally get a chance to check out these novellas.
And they’re… interesting. Diavolo is basically Merlini, apart from being an active magician rather than a trick designer, with a retinue of assistants, both on and back-stage, a house full of tricks and gadgets and a wardrobe full of disguises, including one fairly racially insensitive one. The stories are an interesting blend of adventure and mystery, with misdirections aplenty.
The impossibilities are a mixed bag – the vanishing vampire isn’t as clever as the invisible murder, but neither of them would really work. The vampire story – Ghost Of The Undead – starts off rather strangely, with some blather about a vampire whose been bothering London and is now on its way to New York, without ever hinting as to what was going on in London or how anyone knew it was relocating. The police are actually quite sensible in thinking Diavolo is the culprit, so a lot of the story is nicely paced as Diavolo tries to find the real killer while avoiding the police, but while there are some nice twists and turns, the explanation as to how the murderer escaped the locked-ish room is really weak. The invisible man tale – Death Out Of Thin Air – is better, with a well-hidden killer. You have to question why anyone is bothering pretending to be invisible, certainly the floating gun bit, and Inspector Church’s constant suspicion of Diavolo is a bit tiring after a while – he accuses the magician at one point despite a) Diavolo having an alibi and b) that alibi is that he was with Church at the time of the crime.
But all in all, these are fun, quick reads. The characters, especially those outside Diavolo’s inner circle, are wafer-thin, so don’t expect anything too deep, but all in all, these are highly entertaining, certainly better than Rawson’s The Headless Lady. Definitely Well Worth A Look.