A clever magician tries to solve the case of a locked-room murder that only a talented escape artist could have committed.
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.
First published in 1938, this reissue in Otto Penzler's American Mystery Classics series from Rawson (1906 1971) introduces the Great Merlini, the owner of Miracles for Sale, a Manhattan magic shop. Merlini's mastery of misdirection enables him to assist his friend with the NYPD, Insp. Homer Gavigan, who has two bizarre murder cases to solve. In one, anthropologist Cesare Sabbat was found on a pentagram in a locked room all of whose keyholes were stuffed with cloth on the inside. Around the pentagram were written the names of various deities and demons, including that of Surgat, "who opens all locks." The second case is quite similar. Rawson bends over backward to play fair with the reader. He not only leaves relevant clues in plain sight but at the start focuses the reader's attention on the essential questions: "what it was that all suspects had in common" and "what the two things were that one of them was able to do that no one else could possibly have done." This is one of the all-time greatest impossible murder mysteries.