Review ~ Death from a Top Hat

Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

Cover via Goodreads

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. (via Goodreads)

I’m developing an affinity for amateur magicians. It’s interesting what sorts of “day jobs” they have. David Abbott ran a loan business. Joseffy, not quite amateur since he performed on stage for 15 years, retired to electrical engineering. I just picked up the book, Linking Rings, about W. W. Durbin, who was a politician and lawyer as well as a prestidigitator. Clayton Rawson was a writer and illustrator and one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers Association.

Rawson’s familiarity with magic and the magic scene of the 20s & 30s is obvious. While he doesn’t give away any magic secrets, he doesn’t engage in utterly vague explanations of how illusions are achieved. His fiction is also sprinkled with fact. Footnotes (yes, there are footnotes) refer to real volumes (mostly) and when Rawson puts together an annual S.A.M. shindig, Al Baker is the MC and Joseffy, John Mulholland, and Bernard Zufall are the opening acts on the bill. Even the Mechanical Turk has a cameo.

Unfortunately, Death from a Top Hat is not to my taste. I don’t think I’m much of a fan of hard-boiled mysteries. There is a repetitive quality to the narrative that started to bore me at about the two-thirds mark. Between little bouts of action, the characters spend most of their time rehashing events and clues. Harte is a mostly invisible narrator, Inspector Gavigan is our somewhat ignorant skeptic, and Merlini is enigmatic until the end when all the pieces are put together. The mystery itself is well done. Everything is…fairly…plausible. The style just didn’t work for me.

Genre: Hard-boiled mystery.
Why did I choose to read this book? Magic! Mystery!
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes, but it was a bit rough toward the end.
Format: Hardback
Procurement: Tempe Public Library
Bookmark: Checkout receipt

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