Friday, 23 October 2020

Forgotten Book - No Coffin for the Corpse

No Coffin for the Corpse, first published in 1942, was the fourth and final novel of Clayton Rawson. Rawson, an advertising artist and semi-professional conjuror, was a specialist in impossible crime mysteries and a good friend of John Dickson Carr. His Great Detective was the Great Merlini, who has a shop which sells magic tricks and a 'Watson' in the shape of narrator Ross Harte.

Rawson's career as a novelist was brief, although he continued to write short stories with a locked room or impossible crime focus. In addition to Merlini, he created Don Diavolo (great name!), who makes a fleeting appearance in this book, although generally the Diavolo stories were published under the name Stuart Towne. No Coffin for the Corpse failed to find a UK publisher and did not appear in this country until Tom Stacey brought it out in 1972, the year after Rawson's death.

It may be that Rawson became disappointed and frustrated as a novelist (it happens!), or it may be that he struggled to find story ideas that would sustain a full-length novel. It may be relevant that this story begins quite brilliantly but does not, in its later stages, quite fulfill its early promise. I do think it is a real challenge to write a high-calibre impossible crime novel - the locked room is a trope that, I feel, tends to suit the short story form better (and yes, I know there are quite a number of excellent exceptions, not only by Carr but by others).

Here, Harte is frustrated when the rich but odious Dudley Wolff determines to nip his daughter's romance with Harte in the bud. Wolff has a fear of death which again is eminently suited to this kind of macabre mystery, and when he becomes embroiled in an attack on a blackmailer, he persuades others to help him to bury the blackmailer's body in the woods. But then the corpse appears to take on a life of its own...

A great premise, but the amount of space devoted to justifying the legitimacy of the explanation for the mystery seems rather like protesting too much. I suspect Rawson realised that the trick he used would frustrate some readers. However, he does a good job in terms of coming up with - and juggling - multiple solutions to the key murder in the story. Overall, even though this book is not his best, it's good light entertainment.

1 comment:

TomCat said...

I've a theory why No Coffin for the Corpse is a notably weaker and more pulpier mystery than the other Merlini novels. And why Don Diavolo has a cameo.

A fifth Don Diavolo novelette, "Murder from the Grave," was scheduled to appear in a 1941 issue of Red Star Mystery, but it was never published and is considered to be lost. So my theory is that No Coffin for the Corpse is a massive rewrite and expansion of the unpublished "Murder from the Grave." The title of the novelette fits the plot of the novel and explains the cameo, which also explain why the story is so much more pulpier and why it sometimes felt like Rawson was pleading with his readers. Such as the burial lecture. That came across to me as he was trying to explain to the reader that it was not as ridiculous as it looked. After all, the mystery readers familiar with Merlini were (in those days) often a very different audience than the pulp/magazine readers who might have been familiar with Don Diavolo.