#209: No Coffin for the Corpse (1942) by Clayton Rawson

no-coffin-for-the-corpseI generally try to do the books I have by an author in chronological order, and so should be writing about The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) here, but when TomCat described NCftC in the comments of my review of Rawson’s first Great Merlini novel Death from a Top Hat (1938) as “abysmal” saying that it “began very promising and then turned into one of the worst locked room mysteries I’ve ever had the misfortune of stumbling across”…well, I just had to try it out.    I mean, sure, TomCat doesn’t like Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1941) and so is immediately suspect, but I think I’ve shown myself willing enough to believe the very best of any books I try to read, and it might be interesting to go in expecting a dud.  So, let’s get into it…

And it does begin in a very promising way: Ross Harte, narrator of most of the Great Merlini stories, falls foul of his millionaire heiress girlfriend’s father and — retiring in disgrace — we’re treated to a retrospective filling in of some events that take place in his absence, providing the eponymous corpse sans cercueil.  This gives us what will probably be the setting of the majority of the book, and a cast that you feel is unlikely to expand much and yet contains enough possibilities to provide potential for misdirection and shenanigans; as I say, very promising, and with some great descriptions to boot:

He had planted a tight girdle of conical evergreens about the house which…now resembled a horde of fat-bellied elves in high, pointed hats who crowded close about and peered in at the lower-floor windows.

And:

The millionaire’s complexion grew dark with all the rapidity of litmus paper in the presence of undiluted hydrochloric acid, and his voice thundered like a heavy war chariot racing over cobblestones.

For me, whether I’d been looking for it or not, the first problems come shortly after the introduction of Merlini when the situation that he’s called in to investigate — a haunting — is described in a vague and incoherent way.  There’s an argument that this is in keeping with the character doing the describing, and Rawson lampshades this by having Merlini comment on it, but in all honesty it’s just bloody lazy and feels like he’s trying to cheat something past you by deliberately not communicating it well.

In fact, the extended haunting and initial amateur investigations continue to be poorly realised and badly explained up until about halfway through.  For some reason, Rawson’s disappearing ghost setup is nowhere near as interesting as the same problem posed by, say, Hake Talbot or Anthony Boucher (I mean, sure, Boucher’s wasn’t a ghost, but we don’t really expect this to be one, either).  This entire section ends with a slightly interesting locked-room shooting — yet another vanishing — and is mainly of interest for the historical anachronisms it casually throws out: an extended description of how lock-picking is achieved, for instance, or the fact that the police department has no female officers.

And then…well, then things start to improve.  The screwball antics begin lining up in a way that starts to feel like a plot being constructed, with an actual investigation and the resolution of some of the events to this point.  Some of it feels like complete nonsense — the thing about beating the alarm, for instance — but some of the smaller moments, like Harte and Merlini using every trick in the book to eavesdrop on some interviews or Harte escaping from under police guard by pretending to disappear, display the sort of lightness this narrative could do with resorting to more often.  Because once we start getting actual explanations, it starts to come unstuck.

For a start, one thing is explained via a lecture from Merlini that’s potentially supposed to echo various locked-room lectures from the genre’s recent past but instead is an unmitigated trudge through authorly research.  This is the voluble sleuth as its most author-insert, and could have been handled about ten times more effectively in a tenth of the words.  Perhaps wise to this, Rawson then throws in a couple of great surprises, but once these are tied into a narrative explanation I hit my main problem: so much had gone on in such a haphazard fashion that I was no longer sure what needed explaining and what didn’t.  Suddenly being told that an explanation didn’t work because of an event that I didn’t even remember happening was a bit of a let down, but then I never really feel like I got much of a grasp of what was going on here.

From hereon in it’s a blur of false solution after false solution that feels not unlike the ending of Clue (1986) and should be a head-spinningly good time.  Instead, it felt to me more like a mess at the end of a lot of other mess, and then the actual solution that is finally settled on is…kindly…a disappointment of brobdingnagian proportions.  I get that Rawson has tried to compose something of a billet-doux to the impossible crime, but all the cleverness here — and there is a great deal of it, make no mistake — is lost amidst too much jiggery pocus that is ill-structured and plays too loose a hand to be a compelling narrative.

So, fun, but amateurish, I’d say; not the best summation of a locked room novel by a professional magician about a professional magician, but there you have it.

star filledstar filledstarsstarsstars

If you’d like TomCat’s extended thoughts on this — with some hidden spoilers — then roll up, roll up to this forum that was used in those dark, pre-Beneath the Stains of Time days.

~

I submit this for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category A Hat.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Death of Anton as in both novels we never learn the full name of the sleuth investigating the crime.

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36 thoughts on “#209: No Coffin for the Corpse (1942) by Clayton Rawson

  1. Yes, agree with pretty much all of that. Everything just becomes annoyingly dense as it goes along. There are moments where it’s fun but then too much exposition and confusion. And rinse and repeat…

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    • This also must set the record for the number of times someone offers an explanation for an event only for someone else to go “No, that’s not correct because of X, Y, Z…” only for it then to eventually be revealed that it was, in fact, correct all along. I mean, sure, you don’t want to give up our workings to quickly, but at least obfuscate a little more than just having characters outright deny the correct explanation…!

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      • Indeed. Aside from that lecture you mentioned (and lectures like that ought to be fun highlights) which bored me, I simply found it all a disappointment when I got to the end. One way or another, there is too much faffing around for seems to be its own sake. The book isn’t a total dud of course but the summing up doesn’t live up to the build up.
        And then there’s that perennial problem with Rawson’s writing, which I think became more pronounced with time, where the characters aren’t all that attractive as people…

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        • Have you read any of the Don Diavolo novellas? I’m curious how he manages with that in between lenght, and if in not trying to force a longer fom out of his setup he comes across better — the GM short stories are generally very good, and so it’d not like he didn’t know how to write and plot, after all. It’d be interesting if it was just maintaining a consistency over a longer form is what eluded him.

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          • Goddamn — someone rolling out the ‘chemical unknown to science’ in 1940!? Wow. Thanks for that, it’s convinced me that there’s no rush on tracking these down 😀

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          • I have the Don Diavolo stuff on the computer as e-books but I haven’t read them yet as I’m not crazy about reading off the laptop – I need to invest in a Kindle.

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          • Reminds me of my recent discovery that my library lends ebooks — great, as it inclues some titles I’d be interested in reading. There are two ways to download them: to your computer — which, as you intimate, ain’t ideal for most people — or to your phone.

            Now, I’m sure it’s a sign of my age, but the idea of reading a 90,000 word narrative off my phone screen does not appeal in any way. Couldn’t there be a sort of Kindle-based middle ground? Noop, it seems not. Dammit!

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          • If you can download them onto your phone, I think you should be able to do so onto your tablet, if you have one. I use a tablet rather than a Kindle for reading, and it works just fine.

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        • That’s an…interesting way to go with this. I mean, I suppose Shayne could be a straight substitute for Harte…yeah, okay, the more I think about this the less unlikely it sounds; I shall bear it in mind, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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    • Going in with an awareness of its problems will definitely help; had I not been expecting it to be shite, the eventual resolution of the locked room, in particular, would have pissed me off quite considerably.

      But, yeah, there’s enough to enjoy. It’s just not very good 🙂

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  2. You already know my opinion on the book and you gave it a fair shake, but what’s this nonsense about Sealed Room Murder? You’re not seriously defending that borefest, are you? Sure, the locked room trick has some merit, however, it was tucked away at the end of the story and you had to wade through a long, tedious buildup covering two-thirds of the book. A good deal of cutting and editing might have resulted in a classic novella, but that was not what was served to the readers, was it? Or did we have this argument before?

    Anyway…

    On the Don Diabolo novellas: I only read one of them, “Death Out of Thin Air,” which was a fun enough story, but very pulpy and very, very carny. My impression is that the Great Merlini stories were written as straight detective stories, while the Don Diabolo novellas were pure pulp. So they’re two very different series even though they were written by the same man and both series-characters are magicians who investigate seemingly impossible crimes.

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    • Hahaha, yeah, I think we’ve had this SRM discussion before somewhere. It’s rather an established fact by now that I love Rupert Penny — love ‘im — and won’t stand for any seditious talk on that topic… 🙂

      I’m sure I’ll come across thr Don Diabolo stories at some point, and John has already helped give me a flavour of them with his review above, but the idea of them being more pulpy is extremely helpful, thanks — it’s interesting to see Rawson tried to strecth inside the classic detection genre a bit, but then given these were pubished in the 1940s that’s not completely surprising (about which, more on Saturday…).

      And, y’know, I’m not averse to a pulpy impossible crime. In fact, if Rawson felt more comfortable writing something in that style and of that length I’m more than happy to give it a go; novels were perhaps a little beyond his reach, maybe let’s say hmmmm? However, time and money constraints will preclude me rushing out to try the DD stories yet, as I say; on to John Russell Fearn…soonish.

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    • Oh, hey, I’ve also just remembered that Death Out of Thin Air is in the Black Lizard Big Ol’ Book of “Hey That’s a Lotta Locked Room Mystery Stories in a Book” Book, under Rawson’s Towne nom de plume. So at least there’s one I can give a go. Boom!

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  3. I’m not familiar with Rawson at all, but I love that you actually jumped into a book anticipating a dud! brave. I dull in my risk avoidance. After all, I love a good B movie especially because it’s bad, why not chance it on a book? well done!

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    • I have the advantage of occasionally being premonished by the knowledgable people around me — typically I’ll go into anything hoping for the best, but sometimes forewarned really is forearmed! This and Philip MacDonald’s Murder Gone Mad were two books that I got more out of by being warned about them in advance; Runa Fairleigh’s An Old-Fashioned Mystery would have benefitted from someone telling me it was awful as I might have been more forgiving when reading it…but, well, you can’t win ’em all!

      And, I’m with you: who doesn’t love a good B-movie? In fact, who doesn’t love a bad one?!

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  4. Great write up JJ. It’s funny this mix in quality with Rawson, and I agree with the sentiments from yourself and TomCat that his short stories work better, and this could have made a great novella.

    For example I think the short Of The Face of The Earth is one of my favourite impossible crime stories with the most simple and elegant solution, but Death From A Top Hat had so many good elements going for it, but again with the trying to pull one trick too many it got a little confused. And man the ‘it wasn’t that… oh wait it was that’ gets pretty frustrating in his work, and that goes for DFATH too, particularly when it means that he doesn’t describe the impossible situation enough and then doesn’t feel he needs to explain any further in the reveal because it was ‘what that earlier character said’ anyway.

    Seeing as he was a good friend of Carr I would have hoped that Carr could have given him some plot pointers, but it seems they were more up for battling it out on who could do better than comparing notes. However, it seems some of Rawson’s best stuff comes from those those challenges with Carr.

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    • One such challenge with Carr was murder of a victim in a room whose doors and windows are sealed on the inside with gummed tape. Carr produced the novel He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and Clayton Rawson wrote the short story From Another World.

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      • Yes I was thinking of this challenge as I wrote this, and I think From Another World is again a really nicely worked short story, with some lovely elements.

        There is a touching little dedication in to Rawson in the front of Carr’s (Carter Dickson) Graveyard To Let, which reads something like ‘to those two great arts magic and friendship’.

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    • But, I mean, really, was Carr going to look over Rawson’s books and go “Well, old boy, I’d wipe out chapter 6, rework the haunting plot so that the butler saw a phantom dog which turns out to be a man in a cape, and generally scrap the second half and rewrite it so it’s better”? I mean, damn, the idea of Carr as a consultant offering advice to improve a ton of GAD novels excites me as much as it would anyone, but I’m reckoning he was a bit busy with his own stuff. 🙂

      ‘Off thr Face of the Earth’, though, is a piece of genius as short stories go, I completely agree. ‘From Another World’ is the one a lot of people cite because it’s Rawson’s input t the competition that also produced He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, but I think OtFotE is far superior for the misdirection and workings — an absolute belter, proff on its own that Rawson should have taken this novel and turned it into three or four excellent short stories.

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      • Totally, a collection of Merlini shorts would have made a lovely series out of these more clunky works.

        And your right about Carr’s busyness. Seeing that review list from Ben over at The Green Capsule in chronological order, showing that Carr had two years in which he had wrote 5 books in a year, that is pretty damn busy!

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  5. I think I’m in the minority as I enjoyed all the Merlini novels, with “Footprints on the Ceiling” my favourite. Even the exposition didn’t bother me- I found the characters of Merlini and his sidekick interesting enough, and written with enough humour, to keep me going.
    I listened to all the Merlini novels on long car journeys, and I’m wondering now if perhaps that’s why some of the flaws of the book that others have pointed out have escaped me. I generally have a low tolerance for the tedium of some GA crime writers (anything involving train timetables and I’m out) but didn’t feel that way about Merlini. Perhaps I would have if I’d been reading rather than listening.
    Saying that, I just listened to Christie’s Halloween Party, and that was tedious in the extreme. Every conversation went like this:

    ‘The girl was killed,’ said Poirot.
    ‘Killed?’ asked Mrs Smith.
    ‘Yes, killed. In the drawing room’
    ‘Killed? In the drawing room you say? How extraordinary.’
    ‘Extraordinary it may be. But the fact remains. The girl was killed in the drawing room’

    Every single conversation went on like this, with endless repetition and the same facts explained five times. But that’s a topic for another day…

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    • Oh, god, Ryan, you have no idea how much I hope that summation of Halloween Party both is and isn’t accurate — I’ve been laughing over that for about five minutes, but at the same time it’s my next Christie and I dunno if I can do 300 pages of it. Maybe I should tell myself before I start that it’s a pastiche…

      Here’s a confession of sorts: I’ve still not listened to an audio book. Mainly it’s because I don’t have the opportunities — long car journeys feature rarely in my life at present, and I don’t think I’d want to break something into 85 different short listenings, as I’ll be reading books in the meantime and am likely to get confused. But I’m still curious to try one. Who knows, maybe a road trip somewhere…

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      • Yes, in Halloween Party there is a lot of padding, needless repetitions and meanderings into irrelevant topics. It starts off well in an interesting and intriguing manner but soon deteriorates.

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          • Well, here comes Super Christie Fan, swooping in on Inch to tell you they’re all wrong, JJ, that Hallowe’en Party is fabulous!!!

            Except it’s not. Ryan is correct, the writing is exactly like that. And Santosh isn’t kidding when he says it’s padded. At least, after a promising beginning and a long, sloggy middle, it has a fabulous ending, one of Christie’s best!,,

            Well, I just lied. And I feel terrible about it. The ending’s pure dreck. You will understand why the people who start with this one throw down their books and wonder what all the fuss has been over this Poirot fellow. And they never read Christie again.

            But you KNEW this would happen when you took on Christie chronologically! You KNEW it!! So man up, buddy, MAN UP!!!!!

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