The woman who walked into The Great Merlini's magic store was very insistent: she wanted to buy the apparatus needed to perform a magic trick known as "The Headless Lady" - a stage illusion that culminated in the appearance of a live woman with only a machine where her head should have been. The would-be customer made it very clear she didn't want to take "no" for an answer, so when Merlini refused to sell it to her, she took pretty drastic action. All of which explains how The Great Merlini, along with his Watson, free-lance newspaperman Ross Harte, wound up involved with the traveling circus known as The Mighty Hannum Combined Shows and the case presented to us as The Headless Lady, by Clayton Rawson. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
First published in 1940, The Headless Lady was one of just four mystery novels by stage magician Clayton Rawson to feature The Great Merlini. Merlini is not only a practicing stage magician, and the supplier to other magicians of the machinery required to present stunning stage illusions, but he is also a detective who has become involved in several difficult murder cases, helping police figure out how seemingly impossible crimes could have occurred.
The circus in the book is one of those traveling shows that still exist in many suburban and rural areas, but which were undoubtedly more popular and elaborate during the early years of the twentieth century. In addition to traditional circus acrobats and clowns and trained animals, these circuses also featured sideshows, most of them carefully designed to part the spectators from their money. Stage illusions were often a part of the sideshow setups. For example, the headless lady illusion. What kind of a show is it? Well, according to the story told to the crowd by the attraction’s pitchman, the headless lady supposedly was the victim of a terrible accident, but a doctor had been able to keep her alive while he amputated her head and substituted an astounding machine for it. Spectators would see a live woman seated on a stool - with nothing apparently above her shoulders but a fantastic array of tubes and vials and no sign of her head.
Don't expect Merlini to explain how the trick is done, by the way - as with all magicians, Rawson adheres to that code of behavior which forbids sharing the secrets of such illusions. Besides, Merlini will have his hands quite full when a murder occurs and the police decide that he is the prime suspect in the murder.
It's all thoroughly entertaining, with some first-rate surprises along the way. The book is not only a well-plotted and clued mystery, it is also a fascinating look at the world of the traveling circus, at least as it existed in the first half of the 20th century. Every chapter is filled with some of the colorful slang terms used by the circus people to identify each other, to describe their audiences, and to exchange messages with each other that may not be understood by local law enforcement officials. All these terms are explained to the reader – either by Merlini or in footnotes – and they add a nice layer of local color to the story. I recommend it highly. At the moment, it appears to be available only as an e-book, but there should be used copies available through your favorite mystery book dealer.
The 2015 Bingo Challenge
Continuing my participation in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge. under way at the My Reader's Block blog, The Headless Lady is my entry for the square (first row, third column) calling for one book set in the entertainment world.