CLAYTON RAWSON. Death From a Top Hat (1938).

18 May

Nearly a century after Poe launched the detective genre, along came this tale, the first of a quartet of novels that feature the Great Merlini, master conjuror turned master crime solver. The murder mystery and the magician’s act share certain cardinal features, of course. DeathTopHat.jpgIn each case, the audience expects to be fooled, and the perpetrator of bamboozlement relies on deft maneuvering—and on the sluggish habits of the human mind—to engineer feats of misdirection. Why, then, did it take so long for a writer to deploy a professional illusionist in the lead role of a full-length detective novel? Perhaps the fit is just too close: To cast a magician as the star sleuth calls attention to the crude structure of artifice that usually remains hidden beneath layers of literary art.

Rawson writes well, with all the verve and polish of a true showman, but his story of how Merlini unveils the legerdemain behind a pair of locked-room murders never rises above the level of a staged contrivance. Characters are made of the sheerest cardboard, and the machinery of illusion can be heard clanging away offstage, from the novel’s harum-scarum start to its over-complicated finish. Even those touches that promise to add atmospheric heft to the show—corpses arranged in the form of pentacle, for example, along with other trappings of Satanism—suffer from a lack of sustained authorial conviction. Detractors of the detective story occasionally liken it to a gussied-up parlor trick; this “trick,” cleverly executed though it is, only ratifies that view.

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Posted by on May 18, 2010 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


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