No Coffin For The Corpse by Clayton Rawson

Murdering someone in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction wasn’t ever a straightforward affair – especially when someone just won’t stay dead and buried. It’s even more inconvenient when that zombi decides that it’s time for revenge – no matter how many times that he’s killed…

The Great Merlini, magician extraordinaire and amateur detective along with journalist Ross Harte, are at the estate of Dudley Woolf in order to gain backing for a show and woo his daughter, respectively, only to find the house, and Woolf in particular, haunted by a sinister ghost. Woolf certainly knows more than he’s telling but when the ghost turns murderous, he’s in no position to give up his secrets. But when the ghost himself turns up dead – again – it seems that there may be someone else involved… someone else who can walk through walls, doors and burglar alarms…

Clayton Rawson was a man of many talents – primarily a magician and a writer. He was one of the founders of the Mystery Writers of America which makes it all the more surprising that he only wrote four novels – this is the last of them, by the way. I first came across Rawson via one of his short stories – Off The Face Of The Earth – which is still one of my favourite impossible mysteries, but I was sadly disappointed by my most recent encounter with The Great Merlini, namely the rather prosaic The Headless Lady. A perfectly decent read, but devoid of any impossibility. So I was a little tentative at approaching No Coffin For The Corpse. But when MysteriousPress.com reissued the entire Rawson back catalogue (including the extremely rare short story collection), I jumped at the chance to review this one.

It doesn’t disappoint. Harte is an interesting narrator, especially given his personal connection to the case, both as suitor to Woolf’s daughter and as prime suspect, and Merlini as a character is a gem – both as an investigator and irritant. To be honest, the rest of the characters are drawn fairly basically, but this is not a book that requires deep characterisation and as such, this is not remotely an issue.

What we have here is a densely-plotted, multi-layered, twist-filled mystery with a liberal sprinkling of charm and humour. It does take a few chapters to settle down – the section concerning Harte chasing Woolf around the country to discuss his daughter is fairly irrelevant – and a map of the house might make attempting to solve the mystery properly a little easier (usually presented in the older copies on the dust jacket) – but the denouement is rather wonderful, full of bluff and double-bluff, and the plot never stops moving. There’s a lovely method of impossibly crashing a car that I’ve not seen done elsewhere – although like a similar idea in a Gideon Fell novel, it is a little dated, but it’s hardly critical to the plot.

So, overall, a huge step-up from The Headless Lady – a very enjoyable Golden Age mystery with plenty of asides about the history of magic. Highly recommended.

You can buy No Coffin For The Corpse from MysteriousPress.com here.

About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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10 Responses to No Coffin For The Corpse by Clayton Rawson

  1. I remember liking this one a lot too Steve and would rate it as Rawson’s best after TOP HAT. I think it was the second Marlini novel, right? it was adapted into a halfway decent movie though Merlini was removed and replaced with Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne as ‘The Man Who Wouldn’t Die’ in 1942 (they did the same to Chandler’s THE HIGH WINDOW for the series once Halliday wouldn’t let themuse his own books any more). It’s available on an excellent box set in the US with a marvellous restored image and some very good extras. There’s a trailer for the movie here: http://www.veoh.com/watch/v17957614E5TrYGmB

    • This is the final Merlini, according to Wikipedia at least – it goes Top Hat, Footprints, Headless and this one. I need to re-read Top Hat as my main memories are a) excellent and b) convolutedly confusing but it was an age ago. But this has prompted me to revisit it a bit sooner than I might have planned.

      Thanks for the info on the film.

  2. TomCat says:

    I liked the first half, but the second + solution ruined the book for me. Why? I posted my reasons in one of those one-man book-club threads on the JDCarr forum. The post has proper spoiler tags.

    • If you have read the book already, TomCat makes some excellent points about the plot in this post – do have a look.

      The other mild plot issue that he doesn’t raise is, what happens if Woolf calls an ambulance at the start of the book rather than covering things up? Any plan that assumes a cover-up is a bit risky…

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  6. Paul Woodall says:

    Has anybody ever seen Miracles for Sale with Robert Young as Mike(?) Merlini. It’s based on Death from A Top Hat, and I found Young horribly miscast as The Great Merlini. Even worse is when he tries to impress Florence Rice by making a sugar bowl disappear. If memory serves me there was a half hour tv show pilot(?) and From Another World was adapted for a tv show starring Dennis Morgan.
    There were also two short novels featuring Don Diavolo(?) written by Stuart Towne(Rawson) which I have never seen reprinted.
    Agaom. if memory serves me, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen didn’t fare very well with the movies either.

    • To be honest, I’m very ill-informed concerning tv versions of any of these – are there any adaptations of Carr? Maybe Sergio can help. THere is are recent collections Death Out Of Thin Air and Death From Nowhere featuring Diavolo from MysteriousPress.com – are these the ones you’re looking for?

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