The Great Merlini by Clayton Rawson

The Great Merlini is a magician, a designer of magic tricks and, in his spare time, an investigator of impossible mysteries. Isn’t it always the way that when there’s a specialist in trickery in the locale when someone commits an impossible crime? Awfully short sighted of the criminal. It’s like those idiots that decide they want to outwit Poirot… why not relocate and try and outwit Officer Thicko?

I digress. This is a collection on twelve short stories featuring Merlini, which contains three essential reads. Why essential? Well, one of them was the story that first got me interested in locked room mysteries.

First of all, technically this isn’t the full collection of Merlini short stories. As Tony Medawar demonstrated in Bodies 2, there are also some tales that seem to be explanations of magic tricks, dressed up as a mini-Merlini story, but I think this is the full set of proper mysteries. Most of them are quite brief, having been presented in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as Challenges To The Reader. Those tales are fun, but they are fairly slight. However there are three absolute stunners here.

From Another a World details an experiment concerning a psychic who claims to produce items out of thing air. Our victim locks himself in his study with the woman, only for him to be stabbed and the woman to be found unconscious. The room is sealed with tape along the doors and windows from the inside – surely she must be guilty… This is Rawson’s part of the challenge he had with John Dickson Carr that led to Carr’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, although possibly with a slightly more sensible solution. Actually, I’d say this is more sensible, but due to one part of it, Carr’s is more likely to actually work.

Off The Face Of The Earth, which I first read in Mike Ashley’s Mammoth Book Of Locked Room Mysteries – oh, I love this story. Almost as much as I love The House In Goblin Wood by Carr, and as you know, that’s a lot. Yes, it’s fairly ridiculous, but the method used to vanish a judge from a phone box under observation – simple but clever. Exactly how a locked room should be. Pretty sure I recall people being a bit snotty about this one, but I don’t care. And they’re wrong. It’s a busy story, reflecting Rawson’s novels, that doesn’t let the reader stop for breath. Magnificent.

Nothing Is Impossible is the least successful of the other three. Another locked room with a person in it as well as the victim but it seems aliens have come to visit. The unconscious man has been stripped naked, whereas his room mate has been shot, despite no gun being in the room. And there are glowing footprints… actually the more I think about it, this is a bit rubbish, really, especially in the “how did the murderer think they’d get away with it?” category…

All in all though, this is a great collection, worth it for the first two stories mentioned about. It’s very rare in paper format, but it is available as an ebook for a fiver or so. Definitely worth your money.

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