Death Out Of Thin Air by Stuart Towne aka Clayton Rawson

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.


  1. Just found your blog, puzzle doctor.
    Must say you are doing a great job.
    I have almost completed Christie’s canon but have not read any Carr expect the hollow man (really tough to find his novels). Which of his books do you suggest are worth looking for?


  2. There’s a magician character in Death from a Top Hat named The Great Duvallo — this may be what Wikipedia’s referring to. I can understand the two being confused.


  3. Thanks for the mention, though I think the link doesn’t seem to be appearing.
    It’s interesting seeing which writers work best in long or short pieces and based on my reading of Rawson, i.e. one whole book, I agree shorter is probably better for him. The way the magician here gets into trouble reminds me of Alice Tilton’s Leonidas Witherall stories, which although are odd, work really well. What would you make of Diavolvo as a character?


  4. I discussed these stories (and the others by Towne) in my post here: I liked them a tad better than you, it seems, and I thought the first one better than the second. My main complaint about “Death out of Thin Air” is the explanation behind the invisibility, which seems rather far-fetched.

    I wonder if that Wikipedia entry isn’t just a misunderstanding. Because in “The Headless Lady”, there’s a character called Stuart Towne, and Rawson used that as his pseudonym for these tales.


  5. I prefer the stories in Death from Nowhere over these two. You ought to get that one too if you haven’t already bought a copy.

    The stories were published under “Stuart Towne” pen name because they were assigned that name by the Frank Munsey organization who ran various genre fiction magazines from the 1920s through the early 1950s . All four novellas appeared in four different issues of Red Star Mystery magazine (June, Aug Oct, & Dec 1940). When they were published in book format Rawson decided to keep the name since it was already associated with Don Diavolo. There is a fifth novella “Murder from the Grave” that was supposed to appear in the February 1941 issue of Red Star Mystery, but it had ceased operation due to poor sales after the Dec 1940 issue. I own an ominibus collection of the entire series published by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box Press that has all sorts of fascinating info about the series. Not sure if this was reprinted in Penzler’s eBook edition.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very late to the party here…but I just finished reading No Coffin for the Corpse, in which Don Diavolo appears briefly as a performer in a big Broadway show that stars Merlini. So that’s probably what the Wikipedia reference was based on.


  7. P.S. I do some editing at Wikipedia, so I’ve just gone there and clarified that Diavolo is a major character in one Merlini book but Duvallo is a major character in another one.

    Liked by 1 person

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