CLAYTON RAWSON – Death from a Top Hat. The Great Merlini #1. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1938. Dell #169, mapback edition, 1947. Mercury Mystery #125, digest paperback, circa 1950. Gregg Press, hardcover, 1979. IPL, paperback, 1986. Penzler Publishers, hardcover, 2018; trade paperback, 2019.

   I recently bought the DVD set of Mike Shayne movies, and after watching them, I decided to re-read one of the novels. I had some Shayne mysteries among my mapbacks, but as I was looking for them, I came across this Rawson book and decided to re-read it first. Hollywood, in its wisdom, bought the rights to Mike Shayne from “Brett Halliday” and then used the character in films based on other writers’ fiction. The second film in the set, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, is based on one of Rawson’s Great Merlini novels (not this one). The Merlini character even makes a cameo appearance in that film, giving Shayne info on magicians who do a certain kind of act.

   As Top Hat opens, Ross Harte, Mer1ini’s “Watson,” has just started working on a magazine article on the sorry state of detective fiction when he hears people pounding on the door of the apartment across the hall from his. The apartment belongs to Dr. Cesare Sabbat, a man who spends has time delving into the occult, and the three people in the hall are Eugene Tarot, a sleight-of-hand magician and radio show host, Colonel Watrous, a psychic investigator, and Madame Rappourt, a Medium. Both doors to Sabbat’s apartment are locked and bolted f om the inside and have cloth stuffed in the keyholes.

   When they finally break in they find Sabbat lying on the floor in the middle of a pentagram. He’s been strangled, and the windows are likewise locked and bolted from the inside. Harte calls the police, and when Inspector Gavigan from Homicide arrives, suggests they call on their friend, “The Great Merlini” for help.

   Well, I’m always in the mood for a locked room murder mystery, and this is a pretty good one; one I really enjoyed because I’d forgotten it completely. It’s cleverly plotted and homage is paid to the master of the sub-genre, with references to John Dickson Carr and Dr. Fell’s famous locked-room lecture. As with magic, misdirection is the key here, and Rawson really piles it on as he bamboozles the reader.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson 53, September 2007.