Don Diavolo, master magician, has his hands full once again. Eluding the police that are tailing him, he heads to the office of a circus impresario that he has business with. As he enters the office, he is knocked out, waking up to find himself alone in the room with the body of the man he was visiting. Unfortunately a) the police are right outside the door and b) the door has been jammed closed by a chair – jammed closed from the inside. But there is nobody else in the room with Don…
Once he has extricated herself from that predicament, Don finds himself up against the secrets of Indian mysticism. Can a man really make a dagger fly through the air with his mind? And can a corpse vanish into thin air?
Clayton Rawson’s reputation does confuse me a tad. Death From A Top Hat is mooted as being one of the great locked room novels of all time – it’s in that top ten list that is often cited as gospel, but it seemed to me to be a bit overstuffed with ideas that never really coalesced to a whole and his other three Merlini novels are fine, but not great. There are a few great short stories starring the great magician, but there are also four lesser known novellas starring Don Diavolo, written under the pseudonym Stuart Towne. They’ve been collected into two books, this one featuring The Claws Of Satan and The Enchanted Dagger.
And true to form, these are OK, but nothing special at all.
The Claws Of Satan is the better of the two tales. They’re both an odd crossbreed between hard-boiled (as Don rushes from place to place dodging arrest while solving the case) and traditional mysteries, but the impossibility involves one character forgetting to mention something pretty important which would have cleared some things up pretty quickly.
The Enchanted Dagger, though, is poor. While there’s a nice reversal on the “who” part of the case, the “how” of all of it is utterly dreadful. It uses one of my bugbears in detective fiction and uses it very badly indeed. Rawson was a magician, so he should know this method would never work, and why would anyone do it anyway, even if it did work?
So, one not bad, one very not good. Overall, a disappointing pair of tales.
Death From a Top Hat is filled with fantastic ideas and sports some excellent chapters. What binds them together though isn’t that great. Rawson’s books are fine, but I’m not exactly excited to get back to him or to collect the rest of his library. I had been interested in tracking down these Stuart Towne stories, but they’re so expensive and my enthusiasm for Rawson has cooled. It’s nice to see that they’re more widely available now, although it sounds like I won’t be rushing out to buy them.
I’d recommend the Merlini short story collection, but only for the three(?) main stories, all of which have been reprinted elsewhere. This is Rawson’s best work by far.