If you enjoy Golden Age mysteries, impossible crimes, insider information about stage magicians and their tricks and writers who can both amuse and amaze you, then you really ought to be familiar with Clayton Rawson. Rawson, who was one of the original founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, was himself a stage magician, quite familiar with the often-brilliant tricks that illusionists use to fool and misdirect their audiences. His literary creation, The Great Merlini, owns a store that supplies tricks and props to professional magicians, and he is called upon, in Rawson's novels, to help the police solve seemingly impossible crimes.
These qualities are very much in display in Death from a Top Hat: A Great Merlini Mystery," Rawson's first novel, originally published in 1937, the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Police turn to Merlini for help when another magician - a man who apparently really did believe in his own magical ability to summon evil powers - is murdered inside a tightly locked and sealed room. Then there is a second murder - with the crime scene covered in an unbroken expanse of snow.
Unfortunately for the police, not only are both victims stage magicians - so are the primary suspects. After all, who but a stage magician could so effectively set the scene to give the illusion of a seemingly-impossible crime? Stage magic relies on illusion and misdirection - and the suspects in the case are all experts. Merlini himself is able to come up with half a dozen or so explanations of how the trick could have been accomplished. Can the mystery reader do likewise?
Rawson writes with quiet humor, and Merlini himself is quite likeable (if you are willing to overlook his habit of making coins appear in, or disappear from, his hands while talking). Rawson's books are mostly out of print, but the Mysterious Press has released e-book editions for the Amazon Kindle (which may be reached at the link served by the button, above). There are used hardcover and paperback editions available as well.