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.