Clayton Rawson (1906 – 1971)

OIPClayton Rawson (August 15, 1906 – March 1, 1971) was an American mystery writer, editor, and amateur magician. His four novels frequently invoke his great knowledge of stage magic and feature as their fictional detective The Great Merlini, a professional magician who runs a shop selling magic supplies. He also wrote four short stories in 1940 about a stage magician named Don Diavolo, who appears as a minor character in one of the novels featuring The Great Merlini. “Don Diavolo is a magician who perfects his tricks in a Greenwich Village basement where he is frequently visited by the harried Inspector Church of Homicide, either to arrest the Don for an impossible crime or to ask him to solve it.”

Rawson was born in Elyria, Ohio, the son of Clarence D. and Clara (Smith) Rawson. He became a magician when he was 8 years old. He married Catherine Stone in 1929, the same year he graduated from Ohio State University, and they had four children. He moved to Chicago and lived there working as an illustrator. His first novel, Death from a Top Hat, appeared in 1938. He was one of the four founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, which presents the annual Edgar Awards in various categories of mystery writing. All of his novels were written in a short five-year period, 1938 – 1942, before the founding of this group. After this, his rare mystery fiction output was restricted to some short stories, eventually collected as The Great Merlini (1979). In 1949 and 1967 Rawson received Special Edgar Awards for his various contributions to mystery writing and the MWA, including the founding of the organization’s first newsletter, “The Third Degree”. Rawson is also credited with writing the organization’s first slogan: “Crime Does Not Pay—Enough”. Rawson was managing editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1963 and his death in the United Hospital, Port Chester, in 1971. (several sources and Wikipedia)

Rawson’s four original Merlini books are Death from a Top Hat (1938); The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939); The Headless Lady (1940); and No Coffin for the Corpse (1942).

Mike Grost on Clayton Rawson

To me, Clayton Rawson is one of the cornerstones of the puzzle mystery. (Noah Steward)


(Facsimile Dust Jacket, G. P. Putnam’s Sons (USA), 1938)

Death from a Top Hat (1938) is a locked-room mystery novel written by Clayton Rawson. It is the first of four mysteries featuring The Great Merlini, a stage magician and Rawson’s favorite protagonist.In a poll of 17 detective story writers and reviewers, this novel was voted as the seventh best locked room mystery of all time. (Wikipedia)

When a necromancer is murdered, a magician takes the case

Freelance scribe Ross Harte is working on an essay about the sad state of the modern mystery novel when a scream comes from the hallway: “There is death in that room!” Harte finds a trio of conjurers trying to get into the apartment of his neighbor, the mysterious Dr. Cesare Sabbat, famed occultist and, for the past few minutes, a corpse.

They break down the door to find Sabbat lying in a pentagram, face twisted from the agonies of strangulation, but with no bruises on his neck. All the doors were locked, and the windows drop straight down to the river below. Only an escape artist could get out of that room, and Sabbat knew quite a few. To make sense of this misdirected muddle, the police bring in the Great Merlini, an illusionist whose specialty is making mysteries disappear. (Source: Mysterious Press)

There’s a new edition of Death from a Top Hat at Penzler Publishers.

Death from a Top Hat has been reviewed, among others, at Bedford Bookshelf, The Green Capsule, The Invisible Event, Countdown John’s Christie Journal, Classic Mysteries, Only Detect, and Cross-Examining Crime.

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