As a general rule, I suppose, mystery readers expect the bodies of fictional murder victims to behave with some decorum. Granted, a clever writer may occasionally arrange for a body to be moved, the better to hide it; in one notorious book, Edmund Crispin managed not only to dispose of a body but also the entire toy shop in which it was found. But, as experienced mystery readers, we know those disappearances are temporary; there is no question that the victim, once dead, remains immobile.
But what if the victim is quite clearly dead - and yet his ghost appears to be wreaking considerable havoc in the neighborhood? That appears to be the case in the rather unnerving - and quite well written - 1942 mystery, "No Coffin for the Corpse," by Clayton Rawson. Here, we have a man, apparently killed in a fight, buried by several witnesses...but who seems intent on coming back and terrorizing the people responsible for his death. "No Coffin for the Corpse" is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
The central problem here is the constant reappearance of what appears to be the ghost of the man who was killed. He appears and disappears inside a house wired with a sophisticated alarm system, yet the alarm is not triggered. He appears to have the ability to travel through walls, to escape from locked rooms - and to commit murder in front of witnesses and then disappear.
It is up to Rawson's detective, the stage magician known as The Great Merlini, to explain what is really going on in this classic "impossible crime" mystery. Rawson was one of the four founders of the Mystery Writers of America, and he was a skilled magician himself. The reader will learn a great deal about some of the tricks of the trade in the course of this mystery. But before it is over, I suspect many readers will echo the sentiments voiced by the story's narrator: “What we all needed at that moment more than anything else was a week or two in bed in a quiet secluded sanitarium with no visitors allowed.”
Rawson only wrote four novel-length books about The Great Merlini, but many readers believe "No Coffin for the Corpse" was the best of them. It's a fascinating puzzle, and the reader can only hang on for dear life and follow Merlini as he struggles to explain an apparent ghost and an impossible murder. The book is hard to find in print editions, but The Mysterious Press, through Open Road Integrated Media, has released it in electronic formats for the Kindle and other popular readers. If you enjoy classic locked room puzzles, this should be on your reading list.