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.
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Death from a Top Hat
A Great Merlini Mystery
By Clayton Rawson
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1938 Clayton Rawson, renewed 1965
All rights reserved.
The Voice in the Hall
But see, his face is black and full of blood, His eyeballs further out than when he liv'd, Staring full ghastly like a strangled man ...
Shakespeare: King Henry VI, Part 11
There were times during the investigation of the case of the Dead Magicians when the New York Police Department's official attitude toward the infernal arts of witchcraft and sorcery was damnably inconvenient. It had the annoying disadvantage of leaving us with no explanation at all.
Some of the evidence in the case would have seemed vastly more appropriate had it been reported from the forbidden interior of Tibet or from that other famous home of magic, mystery, and tall stories—India. A murderer who apparently leaves the scene of his crimes by walking straight through solid walls of brick and plaster and by floating in midair out of second story windows would, however, be uncanny enough even in Lhassa or Hyderabad. In modern Manhattan he becomes doubly incredible and rather more frightening.
As recently as two hundred and fifty years ago the authorities would have ended the matter by simply applying those bloody and infamous instruments for crime detection, the pincers and the rack, and obtained a confession of sorcerous activity from the nearest innocent bystander. But this easy technique was denied us, and we were left, armed with logic alone, to do battle with irrational dragon shapes....
Inspector Gavigan's ordinarily jovial and assured blue eyes held an angry worried look that stayed there until Merlini finally exorcised the demons and produced a solution that satisfied the Inspector except as to one thing: he couldn't understand why he hadn't seen it all along. I knew exactly how he felt. I was in the same boat. All we need have done, as Merlini pointed out, was to realize exactly what it was that all the suspects had in common and just what the two things were that one of them was able to do that no one else could possibly have done.
Except for a number of things the murderer had already accomplished, the action began on a Monday evening. I had worked all week-end and through Sunday night until five in the morning on a free-lance job of advertising copy at Blanton, Dunlop & Hartwick's, one of those madhouse advertising agencies in the Graybar Building. Their star client, after a full week of agonizing indecision, had made up his mind at 4:30 on Friday afternoon that the proposed national campaign for Sudzex Soap Flakes was lousy. He didn't know what was wrong with it—clients never do—but his wife said it wouldn't sell her any soap flakes, and his secretary didn't like the illustrations. So would B. D. & H. please show him a new set of comprehensives on Monday morning.
My phone rang as I was dressing for a dinner date, and Paul Dunlop had to jack his price twice before I said yes. Always after one of those incredibly hectic and sleepless jobs I promised myself it would be the last time, yet always, somehow, I managed to think of something I could do with that much money.
When I left the agency, a crew of bleary-eyed layout men and artists were still at it, putting a bit of everything into those damned ads, including, in this case, that usually excluded item, the kitchen sink. After toast and coffee at an all-night cafeteria I walked the few blocks to my apartment on East 40th Street, took a warm shower, drew the shade against the first gray streaks of dawn, and got into bed.
I awoke to see the alarm clock scowling at me reproachfully, the corners of its mouth turned down and indicating 5:40. Reaching out an arm, I flipped up the shade and then lay there for a moment enjoying the warmth of the bed, reluctant to face the cold air breezing in at the window. Warm squares of yellow light shone out from the dark face of the apartment house opposite. I heard the deep moan of a foghorn from the near-by river that moved, dark and silent, between Manhattan and the twinkling wilderness of Long Island. In the northwestern sky a faint blur of red glowed sullenly where low-lying clouds reflected the neon brilliance of Times Square.
Presently I got up, showered, shaved, dressed, and went to the corner restaurant where I ate leisurely with a book propped up against the sugar bowl. Returning to the apartment, I folded myself up in the big armchair and tried to enjoy having nothing to do but read. I soon found, however, that I couldn't relax comfortably so soon after the nervous, driving pace of the past few days. The book seemed pallid and dull. I dropped it, went to the kitchen and put together a Scotch and soda.
In the living room once more, I switched on the light at my desk, placed my glass on a coaster beside the typewriter, and tore open a new package of copy paper. I twisted a sheet into the machine and lit a cigarette. From the top drawer I took out a small loose-leaf notebook and removed the half dozen pages on which I had scribbled notes for a magazine article. Luncheon the week before with Dave Merton, editor of Greenbook, had resulted in a commission to do two thousand words on the state of the modern detective story. At the top of the sheet I typed off a tentative head, Death Takes a Holiday, x'd it out, and wrote two more, Murder Is Hackneyed and The Corpse on the Publisher's Hands. I left them to age a bit and began to click off a rough outline of my main argument, a listing of my reasons for not writing detective fiction.
The detective story is a unique literature form, a complicated species of jigsaw puzzle that is not so much written as constructed; and that, according to almost mathematical formulae. It is a mental contest between reader and author that has evolved its own private code duello; a set of rules now so familiar to every detective story fan that the sales of the authors next book suffer if he so much as infringes a minor ordinance.
These rules require that the story of detection be cast in a regulation mold, fashioned according to a standard pattern that once may have seemed capable of kaleidoscopic variation, but which is now sadly worn.
The essential jigsaw pieces are these: the detective, the murder device, the clues, and the surprise solution. These elements are few, and their individual permutations rather less than infinite. The detective story has been a gold mine for many writers, but the steady demand of the last decade or so has almost entirely depleted the mother lode. Why write a detective story when all the good plots have been used, all the changes rung, all the devices made trite?
Take the detective, for instance. Take, in more or less chronological order, such characters as Dupin, Inspector Buckett, Sergeant Cuff, Lecocq, Ebenezer Gryce, Sherlock Holmes, Martin Hewitt, Dr. Thorndyke, Violet Strange, Craig Kennedy, Prof. F. X. Van Dusen, Father Brown, Dr. Priestley, Dr. Reginald Fortune, Eugene Valmont, Hercule Poirot, Hanaud, Colonel Gore, Max Carrados, The Old Man in the Corner, Frank Spargo, Dawson, Rouletabille, Uncle Abner, Arsène Lupin, Philo Vance, Lord Peter Wimsey, Anthony Gillingham, Philip Trent, Pagglioli, Mr. Tolefree, Perry Mason, Mr. J. G. Reeder, Inspector French, Superintendent Wilson, Ellery Queen, Charlie Chan, Anthony Gethryn, Roger Sheringham, Dr. Fell, Thatcher Colt, Sam Spade, Lieutenant Valcour, Hildegarde Withers, Henry Merrivale, Mr. Pinkerton, Nero Wolfe, etc., etc. Now try to invent a detective whose personal idiosyncrasies (the formula says they are necessary) are unique without being fantastic, a sleuth whose manner of deduction is original and fresh.
I stopped for a moment and, drink in hand, reviewed my listing of detective talent. With a pencil I made several additions in the margin: Nick Charles, the Baron Maxmilian Von Kaz, and Drury Lane. Lighting a new cigarette, I continued.
Consider the murder device. All the garden varieties of homicide have been exploited: shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning, drowning, suffocating, gassing, strangling, poisoning, decapitating, pushing from high places. The variations on these basic methods of dealing death have reached fantastic heights: icicle stilettos, rock salt bullets, air bubbles injected into the veins, daggers fired from air guns, tetanus lurking in the toothpaste, and all that huge assortment of concealed automatic mechanisms, the mere description of some of which is enough to scare a person to death—which, incidentally, has also been done!
And the clue. The author can ring more changes with this element, since clues depend upon time, place and circumstance. The clues of the gas tap and the missing bustle have been superseded by the clue of the electric cigarette lighter and the stolen brassiere. The list of clues, however, that have served a useful life and should be allowed a peaceful retirement is a staggering one. The clue of the barking dog, the cigar ash in the fireplace, the lipstick on the cigarette, the burned documents, the cipher letter, the missing pants button, the (collect more examples) ...
Any writers ingenuity may be excused from balking when it surveys the depleted forest of clues, but the surprise solution—there's the big headache. The problem consists in achieving it without leaving the reader feeling as though he had just lost his roll in a three-shell game. You're allowed seven or eight suspects, not more, and at one time or another each and every one of them has committed the foul deed. The helpless looking baby-faced blonde; the curly haired, forthright young hero; the victim's strait-laced maiden aunt; the doctor; lawyer; merchant; chief; even Grandma, who has been a paralyzed invalid for time out of mind; not to mention little Ethelinda, age 9, nor her pet kitten with the poisoned claws.
They've all done it, separately and together, and the reader knows it. In trying to escape this dilemma of exhaustion, many authors have slyly ventured outside the ordinary list of suspects, and foisted off the dirty work on the detective and the prosecuting attorney, the judge, the foreman of the jury, and, finally, in the last desperate attempt at novelty, the story teller himself. After that, there seems to be little left, except—if you can do it—the publisher of the book—or the reader!
As I see it, all that remains to be done is ...
I broke off and glanced up from my typewriter with a frown. Someone out in the corridor was pounding on the door of the apartment across from mine; and now and then I could hear the low buzz of a doorbell. Two or three voices, fusing in a jumbled excited chatter, filtered through my door. I sat back helplessly to wait until they would decide to give it up and go away. Once, when I had worked on a newspaper, I had been able to write under all sorts of conditions, most of them noisy. There is something about the rhythmic clatter of a newsroom that is conducive to work, but this disturbance was merely aggravating.
Someone was evidently anxious to see the occupant of the apartment which shared the third floor with my own, though I couldn't quite understand why. The tenant was a crusty, antisocial old so-and-so who never seemed pleased to see anyone, as far as I knew. After a tentative "good morning" once that elicited a black scowl as its sole response, I gave up trying to be neighborly. New York isn't the town for that, anyhow. And this bird was probably as unneighborly a specimen as could be found in the whole metropolitan area.
He was tall and had Cassius' lean and hungry look. His slicked dark hair came forward to a sharp V above his high forehead, and his eyes, wet and shiny black like an insect's, peered coldly from a face that might have been carved from soap. In spite of all that, his erect carriage and the incisively hewn symmetry of his face made him almost handsome in a strange foreign way. He had an annoying habit of looking suspiciously back over his shoulder when I passed him in the dark hall that made me think of Count Dracula. He was, somehow, just a shade too fantastic; and his name, which I had noticed on a card at the bell push, was equally odd. It was Dr. Cesare Sabbat.
Suddenly I swung around in my chair. The voices outside took on a quickened tempo, a new throb of excitement—one of them, a woman's, lifted above the rest. It was a curiously flat voice, charged with hysteria, a slow hypnotic tenseness, and a touch of what, oddly enough, sounded like studied horror. Six words came wading through the silence that instantly ensued and hung trembling in the air over my desk.
"There is death in that room!"
It was too much. I got up, scowling, and jerked open my door.
"What is this?" I protested. "A game?"CHAPTER 2
Death of a Necromancer
Facing to the northern clime,
Thrice he traced the Rhumic rhyme;
Thrice pronounced in accents dread,
The thrilling verse that wakes the dead ...
The Samundic Edda
In the dim light of the hall I saw three people. A man and a woman stood with their backs toward me, peering over the shoulder of another man who was down on one knee looking into the keyhole of Sabbat's door. When I spoke they pivoted together like precision dancers. A monocle tumbled out of the crouching man's right eye, bobbed twice at the end of its black cord, and was promptly replaced.
For a second no one spoke. The man with the monocle examined me closely, a cold scrutiny in his eyes that was vaguely disturbing. Finished with this leisurely, impudent survey, he turned a sudden disdainful back and again applied his eye to the keyhole.
"Scram!" he said. The acid in his voice made my annoyance boil over into anger.
"You took the word right out of my mouth," I replied with feeling. Before I could expand on that theme, there was a prefatory cough at my elbow, and the other man edged in front of me, hat in hand, an ambassadorial smile on his face.
"Excuse me," he said in a silky, oratorical voice. "I'm Col. Herbert Watrous. We have an appointment with Dr. Sabbat. Perhaps you know if he's in?"
Stepping back so that the light from my room caught his face, I took a good look at him. He was a small, gray-haired man whose short legs were oddly inconsistent with a wide-shouldered muscular torso. There was a cropped military mustache in the exact geographical center of his fat face. Pince-nez glasses perched astride the bridge of his nose and were fastened to a slight gold chain that looped back over one ear and swung in uneven time to his movements. His chin waggled above a white muffler which was tucked neatly into a sprucely fitted dark overcoat.
I stared with frank, ill-mannered curiosity at this unexpected personal appearance of a figure whom until now I had always half believed to be an invention of the Sunday Supplement feature writers. I began, with some interest, to wonder what "the foremost psychical scientist in America" could be doing here, pounding on Sabbat's door.
"How do you do," I returned, with minimum politeness. "I don't know if your friend Sabbat is in or out. Considering the racket you've been making, the latter seems indicated. And now, why don't you people be considerate and go away—quietly? I'm trying to work."
"I'm sorry if we've disturbed you," he said, his hands fiddling with the ivory top of his walking stick. "But we ... ah ... that is, Dr. Sabbat was expecting us, and it does seem a bit odd, I might even say ..." He hesitated, casting a nervous glance at the woman who stood beside him in what seemed to me an unnaturally rigid position.
"Alarming!" he finished abruptly. "Our host was quite insistent upon our arriving no later than 6:30." He turned to the other man as if for confirmation, got none, and continued: "It's not at all like him to ..."
The woman swayed stiffly, and Watrous, with a swift motion, caught her arm. He looked at her anxiously and seemed to have forgotten about completing his sentence. The woman remained trance-like and soundless.
Excerpted from Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson. Copyright © 1938 Clayton Rawson, renewed 1965. 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.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 The Voice in the Hall,
2 Death of a Necromancer,
3 Suspects in the Dark,
4 The Locked Room,
5 Sleight of Hand,
6 The Great Merlini,
7 The Ghost Hunter,
8 The Grimorium of Pope Honorius,
9 Ask Me No Questions,
10 Into Thin Air,
11 Alibis Wanted,
12 Solid Through Solid,
13 Designs for Escape,
14 The Man Who Laughed,
15 Death in Disguise,
16 The Red-Haired Wench,
17 The Heathen Chinee,
18 The Invisible Man,
19 Curved Sound,
20 The Garrulous Ghosts,
21 Dead End,
22 The Absent-Minded Suspect,
23 The Most Dangerous Trick,