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The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective

The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective

by Clayton Rawson

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A dozen compact puzzles from a master of the locked-room mystery
 The Great Merlini waits impatiently at the door of the Hotel Astor. Inspector Church is late for his meeting with the famed magician, with whom he consults when homicide cases venture outside the realm of the possible. A ventriloquist has attempted suicide in the wake of his wife’s


A dozen compact puzzles from a master of the locked-room mystery
 The Great Merlini waits impatiently at the door of the Hotel Astor. Inspector Church is late for his meeting with the famed magician, with whom he consults when homicide cases venture outside the realm of the possible. A ventriloquist has attempted suicide in the wake of his wife’s mysterious strangulation. Among the suspects are a snake charmer, a nine-foot giant, a tattooed man, and a gaggle of crap players—and this is one of Merlini’s simple cases. He will pick out the killer, with no more effort than he might a rabbit in a top hat. In these twelve short stories, all originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, cofounder of Mystery Writers of America and Special Edgar Award winner Clayton Rawson’s greatest detective confronts puzzles that would leave a lesser magician’s head spinning. From vanishing blackmailers to murderous mediums, no cosmic crime can baffle the Great Merlini.

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The Great Merlini

The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective

By Clayton Rawson


Copyright © 1979 Mrs. Clayton Rawson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-5682-4


The Clue of the Tattooed Man

The Great Merlini looked at his watch for the umpteenth time just as Inspector Gavigan's car pulled up before the Hotel Astor.

"I've got a good notion to turn you into a rabbit," the magician said as he got in. "I've been waiting here for you ever since eleven o'clock."

"You're a mindreader," Gavigan said in a tired voice. "You should know why we're late."

"I see," Merlini said. "Murder."

"I've seen you make better guesses," Gavigan said gloomily. "It's murder, all right. But it's also attempted suicide, a gambling charge, a vanishing man, a nine-foot giant, a ..." His voice trailed off as though he didn't believe it himself.

"And dope, too," Merlini said. "Gavigan, you've been hitting the pipe."

The inspector growled. "Brady, you tell him. I'm a nervous wreck."

Brady seemed just as glum. "Well, it's like this. We get a phone call at 11:40 from a guy who says his wife has been murdered. He's in a phone booth in the lobby near the Garden. We step on the gas getting up there because he sounds like he might have suicide in mind. He does. We find a commotion in the drug store off the lobby and the druggist is scrapping with a tall, skinny guy who bought a bottle of sleeping tablets and then started to eat them like they was peanuts. So we send the Professor down to Bellevue to keep a date with a stomach pump."

"A Professor?" Merlini asked. "What of—romance languages, mathematics, nuclear physics—?"

"I never heard any worse guesses," Brady replied. "His name's Professor Vox. The circus opened at the Garden this week and he's a ventriloquist in the sideshow. So we go upstairs and before we can get into room 816 where the body is we have to wade through a crap game that is going on in the corridor outside—a cowboy, a juggler and three acrobats. I know then I won't like the case and a minute later I'm positive—the ventriloquist's wife is a snake-charmer. And she has been strangled with a piece of cloth a foot wide and about twenty feet long."

"And that," Merlini put in, "gives you a Hindu as a suspect."

"Wrong again. It's a turban all right, but it belongs to a little fat guy who is billed as Mohammed the Magician but whose real name is Jimmy O'Reilly and who makes up like a Hindu with greasepaint. What's more, he has taken it on the lam and so we figure as soon as we catch him the case is solved. But then we question the crap players. And we find that their game starts at 11 P.M., that Zelda, the Snake-charmer, goes into her room a few minutes later and that the magician never goes near her room at all."

"Maybe," Merlini said, producing a lighted cigarette from thin air, "he was already there—waiting."

"I hope not because this is on the eighth floor, the only window is locked on the inside, the crap players insist he didn't leave by the only door, and the only way out is to vanish into thin air."

"It's a good trick," Merlini said noncommittally. "If you can do it."

"Yeah," Brady went on even more glumly. "And pinning it on him in court would be a good trick too because what happens next is that the crap players all agree there was one guy who went into the murder room between the time they last saw the snake-charmer and the time we show up. He went in at 11:15, stays for maybe ten minutes, and comes out again. They swear his identification is a cinch because his face looks like a crazyquilt. He is Tinto—The Tattooed Man.

"And he's also missing. We send out a call to have him picked up. And while we wait we turn up two more hot suspects—both guys who are scared to death of snakes and hate the snake-charmer because she sometimes gets funny and leaves a snake or two in their rooms for a joke. They both look like I feel at this point—definitely not normal. One is Major Little, a midget who is almost so small he could have walked past that crap game without being noticed—only not quite. The other is a guy who is about as noticeable as an elephant; he's a beefy nine-foot giant named Goliath.

"So now we got murder, attempted suicide, a crap game, a vanishing magician, two freaks with motives and no alibis—they claim they were asleep—and a walking picture gallery who is the only guy who could have done it. Two minutes later Tinto walks in—a tall, underfed-looking egg with a face like a WPA post-office mural. And he says he had a date to meet Zelda in front of the Hotel Astor at a quarter to eleven and waited there over an hour—only she didn't show up. He can't prove it and four witnesses say different. So we charge him."

"Well," Merlini said, "your excuse for keeping me waiting is one I haven't heard before—I'll give you that. There's one little thing I don't like about it though."

"One little thing!" Gavigan exploded. "My God! All of it is—" He stopped abruptly. "Okay, I'll bite. What didn't you like?"

"Your skepticism concerning Tinto's story. I think he was in front of the Hotel Astor at the time of the murder—just as he claims."

"Oh, you do, do you?" Gavigan said darkly. Then suddenly he blinked. "So that's it! Now we got a magician as a material witness. You saw him there at the time of the murder—while you were waiting for me."

Merlini nodded. "Yes, I did. But why so unhappy about it? That should tell you who killed Zelda. Since I myself saw Tinto at the Hotel Astor at the time of the murder," Merlini explained, "it's obvious that the tattooed man seen by the crap players was a phony. In other words, someone was impersonating Tinto—imitating his facial peculiarities the same way Jimmy O'Reilly imitates a Hindu—with greasepaint.

"Who? Well, Brady described Tinto as 'tall and underfed' and that eliminates the fat little magician, the midget, and the hefty nine-foot giant. It leaves only the 'tall, skinny' Professor Vox.

"The motive—his discovery that Tinto was dating his wife—is also obvious.

"There's another way of pinning the guilt on Professor Vox. Since the crap players swore that the tattooed man was 'the only guy' to go into and out of the murder room before the cops arrived, how come Vox knew his wife was dead? Answer: only if he were the counterfeit tattooed man—therefore, only if he were the murderer."


The Clue of the Broken Legs

Inspector Gavigan knelt in the glare of the police emergency light and replaced the automatic on the floor beside the body of Jorge Lasko, theatrical producer.

"His own gun," he said. "Two shots fired. One hit Lasko, the other smashed the only light in the room to smithereens. Brady, is there a phone in this place?"

The Sergeant nodded. "Yeah, it's downstairs in the library."

"Get on it," Gavigan ordered. "Find out what's keeping Merlini, and then bring those three suspects in here again."

The Great Merlini's voice came from the doorway behind them. "You won't need to phone, Brady. The marines have landed." Walking in, he added, "Did you say 'three suspects,' Inspector?"

Gavigan nodded. "Harold Kingsley, the novelist whose bestseller Lasko was adapting for production this fall; Dorothy Dawn, the famous star who's on leave from Hollywood to play the lead; and Marie Lasko, the victim's daughter."

"And Dorothy," Merlini said, "is also the ex-wife Lasko divorced six months ago."

"Which," the Inspector added, "probably gives her a motive. And Marie inherits her father's fortune, although I don't see why she'd want to kill him for it; she owns the world famous Lasko Parfums, Inc. As for Kingsley ..." Gavigan scowled.

Merlini was looking at the overturned wheel-chair and the body beside it. "Plaster casts on both legs," he said. "How did that happen?"

"Auto accident a few weeks ago," Gavigan explained. "He's only been out of bed a day or two but insisted on being wheeled into his study here at five o'clock to do some work on the play script. He also apparently had some business to transact with a blackmailer. I found a record among his papers of some mysterious $1000 cash payments extending over the last six months." The Inspector pointed to the scattered hundred-dollar bills on the floor near the corpse. "There's just an even grand there. It looks to me like Lasko was making a payoff, an argument developed, Lasko drew a gun, and the blackmailer jumped him. In the struggle the wheel-chair tipped over and Lasko was shot."

Gavigan turned to a heavy-set individual who leaned against the wall chewing thoughtfully on an unlit cigar. "This is Dan Foyle, Merlini. A private op who works for Acme. Dan, tell him what you found."

"Well," Foyle said, talking around his cigar. "Lasko's an Acme client: we got him his divorce evidence. He phoned me tonight just as I was leaving the office shortly after five and asked me to be out here at eight o'clock. He said: 'I'm going to talk to someone who's threatened to kill me. Come in through the kitchen and up the back stairs to the study. And bring a gun.'

"I got here fifteen minutes ahead of time, but it wasn't soon enough. I was just crossing the lawn when I heard the first shot. I started running. Then there's another shot and I see the light in the study go out. Up here I find the door open, and inside, in the moonlight by the French window, I see the body and a man standing by it. I covered him just as he decides to take it on the lam and heads for the window. I told him to put his hands up. He jumped a foot and was so scared he nearly—"

A tall, blond man, one of the three persons Brady had ushered into the room as Foyle was speaking, said coldly, "Who wouldn't be startled? I heard shots, entered a dark room to find a body, and then turned to discover a man I'd never seen before barking at me over a gun."

"Kingsley," Gavigan said. "I'm not satisfied with your story at all. You say you were downstairs when you heard the first shot, that you ran up, heard the second shot as you reached the top of the stairs, and that no one came out through the study door before you got to it."

The novelist nodded. "That's correct. I opened the door, pushed the light switch just inside without result, and saw the overturned wheel-chair. I went across and found Lasko—dead." Kingsley looked at the private detective. "But I had no intention of leaving by the window. It was locked on the inside, and I went toward it because I heard someone outside trying to get in."

"Everybody," Gavigan growled, "tried to get in. And you want me to believe nobody ever went out—that Lasko's murderer vanished into thin air like a soap bubble. Miss Dawn, how long had you been out there on the sundeck?"

Miss Dawn's tone of voice said that she didn't like cops—not even inspectors. "Ten minutes," she said frostily. "I told you that before. And don't ask me again if anyone came out through that window. No one did. You might try asking something important. Such as where Mr. Kingsley was when he heard that first shot."

The novelist frowned. "I was in the library reading."

Miss Dawn smiled. "You never told me you could read Braille, my dear."

"Braille? I can't. Why—"

"I could see the library windows from the sundeck. They were dark. There were no lights there at all!"

"Well, Kingsley," Gavigan said. "That eliminates our invisible man. You were in here with Lasko. You're the only person who could possibly—"

Marie Lasko spoke suddenly, her voice tense and angry. "Just a minute, Inspector. Harold was in the library. I know. You see—I was with him."

Dorothy Dawn smiled again. "Reading aloud to you, I suppose—in the dark?"

"Don't look now, Inspector," Merlini said. "But that invisible man is back again."

"No!" Gavigan growled. "Don't give me that." He faced his three suspects. "Somebody is lying like hell. And I'm going to find out—"

"I know who's lying," Merlini said. "I'll demonstrate. Which one of you people called the police?"

It was Marie Lasko who answered. "I did. Harold told me to stay in the library, but when I heard the second shot I followed him upstairs." She indicated Foyle. "And this man told me to phone Spring 7-3100. I went down again to the library and did so.

"You see, Inspector?" Merlini said. "Together with Lasko's broken legs, that tells you who has been lying and explains the mystery of the vanishing blackmailer."

The Inspector scowled. "Oh, it does, does it?"

"After disarming and shooting Lasko," Merlini explained, "the blackmailer had to vanish. And with Miss Dawn on the sundeck outside the window and running footsteps approaching the only door, that was something of a trick. His first step was to shoot out the light, thus insuring that it couldn't be turned on again too soon. Then he dropped the gun by the body and flattened himself against the wall by the door. After Kingsley ran in, he merely stepped into the doorway behind him, pretended he'd just arrived, and—"

Foyle shook his head. "Theories are a dime a dozen."

"All right," Merlini said. "Here are some facts. Fact Number One: the other suspects are all in the high income tax brackets, leaving you as the only decent candidate for the blackmailer role. Fact Number Two: the blackmail payments began six months ago when you got Lasko his divorce evidence and discovered something that—"

"The D.A.," Foyle said, "will need a hell of a lot more than that."

"The best," Merlini smiled, "is yet to come. When you had to explain your presence here, you couldn't very well admit you came to blackmail Lasko. So—Fact Number Three—you said he'd phoned and asked for protection. But the telephone, as Brady and Marie both clearly stated, is downstairs in the library. At shortly after five, when you claim Lasko phoned you, he was confined with two broken legs to a wheel-chair in his study on the second floor. And that puts you, Mr. Foyle, in a chair of a different kind."


The Clue of the Missing Motive

I wondered if you'd be questioning me," The Great Merlini said as he opened the door at 13½ Washington Square North and admitted a scowling Inspector Gavigan and an even glummer Lieutenant Malloy. Merlini indicated a headline in the newspaper he had been reading:



$30,000 in Cash Found on Corpse

"A man gets killed at dusk last evening just across the street in the park—a hundred feet or so from my front door. Scores of people there, as usual, and one man actually saw the victim as he fell. Yet no one saw the murderer or heard the shot. I'm a magician. So I suspected you might suspect me."

Gavigan sat down wearily. "Have you," he asked, "ever been in Hillsdale, Oklahoma?"

"Of course," Merlini admitted. "I'm an old circus man. When I was with the Kelley & Edwards Combined Shows in '18 we had a bad 'Hey Rube' in Hillsdale and—"

"That," Malloy said in a tired voice, "makes you our No. 1 suspect. None of the others ever heard of the burg before."

"What," Merlini asked, "does Hillsdale, Oklahoma have to do with an invisible gunman taking potshots at an unidentified man in New York City's Washington Square park?"

"If," Gavigan said, "I knew the answer to that I'd know what the missing motive was and which of the suspects next door is guilty."

"Next door?"

"Yes. You see, James J. Vanpool, the man who was in the park and saw the victim fall, phoned the police—"

"The paper," Merlini put in, "says he lives across the park on Washington Square South. I think I've seen him going in next door. Is he a short, fat, middle-aged man—the jolly, effervescent type—horn-rimmed glasses, military mustache?"

"That's him. Son of old man Vanpool, the Wall Street Wizard, who left James and his sister, Mrs. Elsa Blackwell, a couple of million dollars apiece. She lives next door—an invalid widow who's been bed-ridden for years. Vanpool comes over nearly every evening and plays cribbage with her. And this morning he showed up in my office with a single-shot target pistol equipped with a silencer. Said he suspected it might be the death weapon. Ballistics checked it. It was."


Excerpted from The Great Merlini by Clayton Rawson. Copyright © 1979 Mrs. Clayton Rawson. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Clayton Rawson (1906–1971) was a novelist, editor, and magician. He is best known for creating the Great Merlini, an illusionist and amateur sleuth introduced in Death from a Top Hat (1938), a rollicking crime novel which has been called one of the best locked-room mysteries of all time. Rawson followed the character through three more adventures, concluding the series with No Coffin for the Corpse (1942). In 1941 and 1943 he published the short-story collections Death out of Thin Air and Death from Nowhere, starring Don Diavolo, an escape artist introduced in the Merlini series. In 1945 Rawson was among the founders of the Mystery Writers of America. He served as the first editor for the group’s newsletter, The Third Degree, and coined its famous slogan: “Crime Doesn’t Pay—Enough.” Rawson continued writing and editing for the rest of his life.

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