Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Turnabout Big Top

"Off with their heads!"
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I got the e-book version of this book, but I hate clowns, so I'm not going to use that cover here.

It was on a hot, nay, a very hot day when stage magician The Great Merlini and writer Ross Harte were melting inside Merlini's magic shop, when a woman stormed inside, determined to buy Merlini's Headless Lady act right at once. The fact she doesn't accept no for an answer rouses Merlini's interests who is willing to part with the one show model left if she can explain what this is all about, but she refuses. The woman is obviously being tailed by someone, and Merlini and Harte try their hand at finding out who is stalking the prospective client, but when the two return to the shop, they find the Headless Lady act has been stolen (even if money was left behind). Some words spoken by the woman however give The Great Merlini enough of a hint to guess where she and the Headless Lady might be, so the two head out to the Mighty Hannum Combined Shows circus, owned by Major Hannum. Or to be precise: the late Major Hannum, as he has died in a curious car accident the day before. Making use of his old friendships with many of the performers at the circus, Merlini not only learns where his Headless Lady is and who the woman was who stole it from him, but he also starts to suspect that Major Hannum's accident wasn't an accident and that more deaths may follow. His hunch proves to be correct, as more curious events happen like a horrible accident during an act and even the disappearence of the performer of the Headless Lady in Clayton Rawson's The Headless Lady (1940).

I never read books in order, so this is the first time I read a full novel starring Rawson's stage magician detective The Great Merlini (named after Rawson's own stage name as a magician), even though this is the third novel. I have read the short story collection The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective by the way, which featured some very impressive impossible crimes, though do note that The Headless Lady isn't an impossible crime mystery.

Was The Headless Lady a good mystery novel though? I have to say I was a bit disappointed when I finished the novel. Not that it is bad: the 'problem' is that The Headless Lady is rather average. The first few chapters are perhaps the most fun: The Great Merlini and Harte find themselves in the crazy world of circus performers, and making use of his own experience as a stage magician, Rawson goes all out with the circus lingo. The parts where Merlini speaks with his fellow performers in impossible-to-decipher slang are quite entertaining, with Harte desperate for an interpreter of this nightmare of the English language. The circus world is given life in these pages, providing an interesting setting for the mystery. One funny thing to note is that there's a suspicious mystery author character in this novel, who goes by the very familiar name of Stuart Towne...

But the mystery is rather... bland. There are a few seperate threads of plot that Merlini and Harte chase after: the curious car accident of the Major, an nasty accident during a performance because the lights suddenly went out, the disappearance of the Headless Lady. Yet none of them are really interesting as mysteries taken on their own. One incident happens, Merlini and Harte ask some questions here and there, and then the next incident happens, and the previous one is hardly given any attention anymore.  That happens several times, so none of the incidents are really given enough consideration, and after a while, you start losing interest, because apparently, the plot too doesn't deem them interesting enough. I'm not asking for an impossible crime though. I'd just like the plot to not constantly replace one minor mystery with another one, without really fleshing out the previous one. In the end, none of these mysteries really manage to impress, as most of it is awfully familiar. The answers to some questions are basically nothing more than "yeah, anything could've done it, but they were the ones", but the conundrum revolving around the Headless Lady utilizes the setting well as a nice piece of misdirection, even if it's rather simple. So again, The Headless Lady isn't a bad mystery novel per se, but it does lack something that really makes it stand on its own besides the circus setting.

Speaking of that, this photograph of Clayton Rawson with the Headless Girl is pretty famous. "Olga the Headless Girl" was a sideshow act by a "Doctor" Heineman who also performed at the New York World's Fair in 1939. The picture of Rawson and Olga was taken then, and The Headless Lady would be published one year later.

Japanese mystery author Awasaka Tsumao was also a stage magician, similar to Clayton Rawson, and has used similar settings. His Soga Kajou short stories also feature a stage magician as a detective, while stage magic and/or circus performances also played an important role in his novels 11 Mai no Trump (a masterpiece!) and Kigeki Hikigeki. Game designer Takumi Shuu, who is not only an amateur magician himself, but also an open fan of Awasaka, would also utilize the circus setting in an episode in the second entry in his Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series. Others that come to mind are some of the Hoshikage Ryuuzou short stories by Ayukawa Tetsuya and that excellent impossible crime short by Abiko Takemaru. None of these stories go all-out with circus lingo like The Headless Lady does though.

So The Headless Lady isn't a bad mystery. However, it also has little to truly set it apart, aside from the circus setting that does truly come to life thanks to Rawson's writing. As a mystery however, The Headless Lady lacks true inspiration and surprises, making especially the mid-part of the novel rather slow and dull, with little to keep the reader entertained in an intellectual manner.


  1. Hello Ho-Ling. By any chance, do you know where I can find sale figures for Werewolf Castle? I'm drafting an email to Creek & River—the English language publisher for Miyabe Miyuki's multi-volume Puppet Master—where I ask them to consider publishing Werewolf Castle in English. (Long shot, I know, but it costs nothings to try.) My two points of attack are the work’s landmark status and awards, plus its potential sales based on its sales in Japan. The Wikipedia page lists some awards, but not the sales. Do you know where to find the sales info (or really any consensus of its quality/importance as a detective novel)? And any advise you have is welcome. Thanks.

    1. I saw wolf castle on amazon

    2. Ditto for the first comment. You never know.

      to the second comment: do you have a link? I won't believe it till I see it myself lol

    3. I can't help you much here, I'm afraid. Life-time sales figures for specific books are never released to the audience (in fact, even within the publishing company it's likely only a few know the exact figures). You'll only hear about sales figures in very specific cases (for example if a bestseller manages to reach a certain number, giving the publisher a special occasion to promote the work again) and even then it's likely to be a "public" sales figure.

      Sites like Oricon have weekly rankings for various media (books, manga, DVD, music etc.), which are simply estimations based on the data get from affiliated sale points, but they track only weekly rankings (so you're out of luck if the title you want to know about falls below the ranking), and I believe you can only go back in time for about a year in the database. And anyway, they wouldn't track life-time sales.