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Literature / The Great Merlini

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The Great Merlini was the lead character of four Golden Age mystery novels and twelve short stories. He was a stage magician who had retired to run a magic supply shop in New York City. Merlini's adventures were written by Clayton Rawson, himself a trained magician. (One of Merlini's signature tricks, vanishing a lit cigarette, was done the same way Rawson did it.)

The novels are:

  • Death from a Top Hat (1938)
  • The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939)
  • The Headless Lady (1940)
  • No Coffin for the Corpse (1942)

The short stories were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine between 1946 and 1971 (the last one published after Rawson's death). They were later collected in The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective.

Two of the Merlini novels were turned into movies, but with heavy editing. Miracles For Sale is based on Death From A Top Hat, though with the lead character's name changed. The Man Who Wouldn't Die took No Coffin For The Corpse and spliced in a more popular fictional detective of the time (Michael Shayne).


Rawson wrote a pilot episode for a Merlini TV show in 1951, but it wasn't picked up by the networks.

The series provides examples of:

  • Asshole Victim: Linda Skelton of Footprints On The Ceiling. She deliberately administered a toxin to another character to destroy his career on the stage.
  • Always Murder: Averted in one short story (poisoning to scare the victim, but a deliberately nonlethal dose), but played straight everywhere else.
  • Bullet Catch: A performance of this trick is the climax of Death from a Top Hat. The murderer tried to sabotage the trick to ensure the performer (a possible witness against him) would die. Too bad the whole trick was set up as a trap for him, including a marksman firing the gun who was under strict orders to miss.
  • Circus Brat: Merlini was the child of a family of circus acrobats, and got his initial training in stage magic from the sideshow's magician.
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  • Cold Reading: Merlini uses this technique in one of the short stories to figure out what the murderer did with an important piece of evidence.
  • Cut Phone Lines: In Footprints On The Ceiling. Ross and Merlini manage a temporary patch to call in Inspector Gavigan ... and then the lines get cut again.
  • Empty Piles of Clothing: The locked room in one of the short stories contained one corpse with a gunshot wound, one unconscious nude man, the man's clothing laying in perfect order on the floor as if he'd phased out of it, and absolutely no sign of a gun.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: Six of the short stories were written as reader contests for EQMM, the rest of the series also fits this trope.
  • Friend on the Force: Inspector Gavigan already knew Merlini at the beginning of the first novel.
  • The Great Whodini: Subverted — Merlini is his real family name. And as the child of a long line of circus equestrians, it never had any association with stage magic until he started hanging around the sideshow's magician as a kid.
  • Last-Name Basis: According to the front door of Merlini's shop, his first initial is A. Everyone just calls him "Merlini", we never learn his first name.
    • Averted with Ross Harte, the narrator for all four novels and several of the stories — he's routinely called Ross.
  • Locked Room Mystery
  • Madame Fortune: Madame Rappourt.
  • Magician Detective
  • Medication Tampering: In The Footprints on the Ceiling, Madame Rappourt routinely took "trance capsules" containing morphine and scopolamine before conducting a seance. When another character in the novel thinks she's developing mediumistic abilities and begs Rappourt to let her try the capsules, Rappourt empties out a couple and fills them with sugar instead. Then before she can hand over the altered capsules, the murderer spikes them with cyanide.
  • Murder by Mistake: the solution for one of the short stories.
    • Also Linda Skelton — the poison was intended for another character.
  • Phoney Call: One suspect in Death From A Top Hat claimed she'd placed one of these to the murder victim to make her husband jealous.
  • Safe Cracking: Merlini uses a variant on the stethoscope to retrieve the victim's will in The Footprints on the Ceiling — a pocket watch-sized gadget (supposedly a present from Harry Houdini) with a vibrating needle to indicate when a tumbler had fallen into place.
  • Shoot Out the Lock: Subverted in Death From A Top Hat. When a policeman tried to force entrance into a home, he shoots at the lock and does such a good job of jamming it that before the latest corpse can be hauled off to autopsy, the door hinges have to be removed. (This seriously annoyed the murderer — that killing wasn't supposed to look like a Locked Room Mystery, but the police bullets turned it into one.)
  • Stalling the Sip: Played with during the Summation Gathering in The Footprints on the Ceiling. Ross thinks this trope is in play as Merlini spends over half a chapter not drinking his glass of vermouth. (The first murder discovered in the novel was a poisoning.) When Merlini actually takes a drink, Ross dives across the room to knock the glass from his hand. Merlini nearly hurts himself laughing — he knew the drink was safe because he knew the murderer was already dead, he'd just been too busy talking to take a sip.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Forty-two years before the Breaking Bad finale, a dose of poison is added to a sugar packet at a diner.
  • Tap on the Head: Several people get clonked on the head during The Footprints on the Ceiling. The only one who suffers more than brief unconsciousness and a bit of a headache is Colonel Watrous.
  • Violin Scam: One minor character in The Footprints on the Ceiling turned out to have quite the reputation for a variant of this scam. He would go into a small town, acting like a businessman from the big city, then "lose his custom-made glass eye" note  in a shop. Later that day, an accomplice would "find" a glass eye there, the shopowner would buy the eye expecting to get a huge reward from the businessman, then find the businessman had vanished from his hotel.
  • Yellowface: Ching Wong Fu (real name Donald MacNeil) in Death from a Top Hat.