Rich at Past Offences has issued another challenge to blogging readers this month: to feature a book set in 1939. I selected Clayton Rawson’s FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING because I could get hold of a copy and it is a locked-room mystery I hadn’t read. I am a sucker for locked-room plots.
FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING is the second of four mystery novels featuring a magician – one mythically inspired Great Merlini – as the amateur sleuth and a wise-cracking sidekick-cum-narrator in the form of publicity writer Ross Harte. Rawson was a magician himself which probably explains his choice of protagonist and possibly has something to do with the fact he only published four mystery novels and a handful of short stories despite being one of the founding members of Mystery Writers of America.
The book starts with Harte seeing a classified ad seeking a haunted house which turns out to have been placed by his old friend Merlini so Harte drops by Merlini’s magic shop to find out more. He and Merlini are soon deeply embroiled in a bizarre whodunit which plays out on a fortuitously isolated island in New York’s East River. A wealthy heiress named Linda Skelton is found dead in the locked room of an outbuilding of her home while a house party of suitably suspicious guests and hangers-on take part in a séance. Mayhem ensues.
As locked-room stories goes this one offers the classic elements of an impossible crime, as evidenced by the plot hint provided by the title, and gets points from me for having a logical resolution not requiring any paranormal intervention or other such silliness. That said, the plot does rely on some oddities and several people having highly specialised knowledge of vastly disparate subjects. There are for example two characters with extremely rare medical conditions and different elements of the plot which rely on a knowledge of such things as photographic dark room techniques, deep-sea diving and spiritualism. But somehow Rawson – and Merlini – do pull this all together and have a lot of fun along the way. This is not a book that takes itself too seriously and there are even some mild digs at the detective fiction genre.
This is a traditional whodunit which focuses almost entirely on providing an intriguing plot with little consideration given to character development which is par for the course for mystery novels of the period. But other than this the book does not read in a particularly ‘dated’ way even though much of the technology relied upon is of course obsolete now. But Rawson’s writing is good enough to explain all that needs explaining and to easily draw the reader in to the environment. I did wonder if it was because the book is American rather than European that there is absolutely no sense of the story unfolding at a time when much of the world is on the brink of war or if it’s my own hindsight that makes me assume everyone would have been pondering world politics at the time.
I’ll admit I got a bit lost a couple of times when the narrative delved very deeply into very specific technical matters but overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It is a light-hearted tale in which spiritualism is debunked, circus acts make cameo appearances, the magician’s art of misdirection takes centre stage and the resolution to the locked-room plot element is elegant.