Sunday, June 30, 2013

Clayton Rawson : From Another World, 1948 (into Anthony Boucher’s Quintessence of Queen , New York, Random House, 1962)

Among all the stories presented in the anthology Italian (reduced), based on that prepared by Boucher, I will talk about the story by Clayton Rawson.
In my opinion, Rawson is the only author, who as part of the mysteries of the Locked Room, and can be historically and inventively on a par with Carr,  on his same floor. In essence, Rawson, who has an obvious gap in the literary quality of his stories, always too cold, without that inspiration divine who have the carrian works, full of extraordinary atmospheres, cancel the gap by virtue of an extraordinary inventiveness that mutes more skeptical, deriving from the core of Rawson, that of illusionist.
Some critics, especially Americans, underestimate him, because in the structure of the text, he does not give importance to certain parties, such as witnesses, or he does not emphasize the descriptions, downplaying these components to essential and instead focusing all his attention on the imagination of the plot. Rawson, in other words, focuses his attention on finding all those effects acts to impress the reader at all costs by proposing impossible challenges, made of small details that make his works, however, in my opinion, absolutely visionary. A bit like what happens in certain novels of Paul Halter, a writer who shares a certain dichotomy of opinions, some too enthusiastic, others are too critical. Not by chance the illusion enters by force in many of his works, who are true cornerstones of the more cerebral mystery, that of Locked Room.
Among the stories featured in this extraordinary anthology of Boucher, defined at the time of publication, by the New York Times
The best anthology of mystery stories that has ever been published”, the story that for me, can better represent the most extreme visionariness of imagination, is the astonishing “ From Another World” (included in the collection, published posthumously in 1979, in the anthology "The Great Merlini", but originally published in 1948). 
Here, in essence, there is a mystery proposed to “The Great Merlini”, a great illusionist, who occasionally helps the police to solve real impossible challenges.
Andrew Drake is a rich man, who, like all the rich people in America, makes the charity. First he gave interviews he will subsidize research on cancer of the reach of 15 million dollars, then says he wants subsidize the PES (or ESP), that is, the Extra Sensory. Rosa Rhine, a famous medium, is trying to make him believe that she can materialize out of thin air of real things, with the power of thought. Rose aims also to something, else: she would conquer him with his physical attractiveness, and so be able to marry him. Therefore she organizes a pretty sight: at the presence of Drake, she will materialize the things that do not exist in the room. However, something does not go the right way. In fact, Ross Harte, a friend of Merlini and narrator of the adventures of illusionist, is invited to Drake house, but, arrived in front of the door, he finds a doctor, Garrett, who is trying to ring the bell of the house, extremely worried. Garrett tells Ross he had received shortly before, a phone call from Drake, who gasping, murmured him, going to die.
Entered the house, they are faced with a first impossibility: Drake is locked in his room and there is no way to enter it. So, they try to enter by breaking down the door. When you succeed, Ross hears the sound of torn paper. Immediately after both are inside the room, and they found Drake dead, stabbed with a reverse phone close, two snails on the table, a screen, and the beautiful Rosa Rhine, in a skintight swimsuit, fainted. No one else in the room. Ross Harte when he entered the room, he realized the only window was sealed with gummed paper, and yet the door was, before they were entering, breaking through the door and jamb. Just they try awaken the beautiful medium, she starts screaming like a crazy, a sign that she is in shock.
Obviously, Homer Gavigan, Inspector of Police in New York, does not believe in his innocence, the only one who examines his innocence is Merlini. However, the beautiful Rose was trying to cheat the old Drake with trick of things swallowed and then thrown back out, when something must have happened: she remembers only the old man had a surprised and scared expression (just before she lost the senses , a blow to the head) for something he had seen behind her. Gavigan doesn’t believe, while Merlini is perplexed.
The tests at the expense of the beautiful Rosa seem overwhelming: she has been found with the corpse of the old in a room not just closed, but sealed from the inside, without the others being found on the inside or they are able to escape; there are no openings or secret doors hidden; to seal the room was used gummed paper, then found torn around the outline of the door; the murder weapon was finally found: it was a knife of bronze contaminated by blood. What do you want? Ross Harte tells Melini about "a sealed room that defies all rooms sealed ". How to say at words, "the best of the genre".
But the strange thing in the eyes of Merlini (and the reader) is that Rosa Rhine was perhaps the only person Vs the park of those with some interest in the death of the old Drake, not to have interest: it is evident that killing Drake, she killed "her goose that lays the golden eggs". While to Paul Kendrick, in love with Elinor Drake, the death of the old planing his marriage to Elinor, because Drake did not accept the union of his daughter with Kendrick. And of course Elinor reaps benefits from the death of his father, also. And Isabelle Potter, the secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, who accompanied Drake at home, Rose, has something to do? He had spoken of evil entities that would have overwhelmed benign evoked by her friend and then killed Drake. And Garrett has something to do? But if the old man was dead, he would have received an injury, because he pleaded cancer research. So .. a beautiful patchwork of suspects, liable to suspicion and innocent.
It’s obvious to solve the riddle, The Great Merlini will pull from his hat a bomb-proof solution that meets the two impossibilities:
1) closed room from the inside rather sealed with gummed paper
2) no one else inside the room except the body and the likely murderess.
The two impossibilities become even three when you find out, after the autopsy, that the blow to the chest of Drake, hit a rib: the weapon in other words, it is checked. There would be no great surprise if you did not find out that .. the tip of the metal extracted from the rib is not by bronze but by steel. Well. Found a weapon that now doesn’t seem be the murder weapon and another weapon “ghost” disappeared from the scene of the crime. So the impossibilities become three:
1) closed room from the inside rather sealed with gummed paper
2) no one else inside  the room except the body and the likely murderess.
3) a ghost weapon.
The Great Merlini solves the puzzle by providing a simple explanation, because essentially the whole plot - he explains - is based on an illusion. After excluding gradually the other, he will indicate “X” as the real murderer, giving birth to a solution, which basically takes into account the historian holmesian said, dated but still valid: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. The famous judgment of Holmes, will be improved by Merlini who exclaims: “Do not believe everything you see is good advice, but there is an even better: Do not believe what you think”.
It ‘s widely believed that Clayton Rawson has excelled in the stories, because they probably fulfilled his desire to create a virtually unsolvable problem, and then furnish the solution, in a few pages, without bothering to dwell in psychological descriptions and places, in artificial style , upheavals in the plot that gave rise to tension. This view is quite unbalanced, because his first novel, Death From a Top Hat, which will examine one day, although in fact it’s a bit frosty, is a firework of impossibility and artifice-breaking brains, that tests also the most gifted brains, and keeps the voltage to the end.

For me, Death From a Top Hat is an absolute masterpiece. But even this story it is.
Probably, it was the Clayton Rawson’s reply to He Woluldn't Kill Patience, a shocking Carter Dickson’s masterpiece (John Dickson Carr), published in 1944, in which the victim is killed in a room not only closed, but sealed, so much so that even the air comes out.
Normally, when you read a Locked Room, at the base of the story is always a trick (the only time there is, is when an accident occurs that turns a normal situation in an impossible situation: for example, if an air flow slams a door, letting down the latch. And so on ..). Now this trick may involve tampering with the bolt or anything else, the door or windows, or is related to something that someone has testified to having seen (for example at It Walks By Night by Carr, Bencolin and another of his most trusted men, François, they are ready to swear that no one is out of the room;; or in The Wrong Shape by Chesterton, someone has been led to believe that what he saw was something he was not and instead) having excluded suicide.
But in this story for the first time, that I know, is put in place a trick not about the view of the witness, but  about the hearing. That is, a sensory element that more often than not comes into play with regard to the closing of a door or window, but only in the determination of what happened (a scream, sounds of a struggle, a shot), i.e. with the murder or the disappearance of something in a room locked from the inside. The only noise that is in direct relation with the closing of the door, is usually that produced by the door and the jamb that are smashed, together or the one excluding the other, for the action of something that is used to bring them down. When there is an illusion, it is associated with, if anything, to the sound of a gunshot, which serves to delay the action, attributing it to a time when the testimony is premeditated, perhaps in good faith, to those who swear that the murderess was with him when he felt the shot. Here, however, the sound of tearing of gummed paper used to seal doors and windows of the room, is directly associated with the impossibility that the murderess is able to leave the room. There would be, it is true, also the possibility that in a locked room is heard the noise of the bolt, or the key is turned, and these are sounds that are also connected with the closing of the door from the inside, but only serve to ... convince you that the door was closed. Here, however, we know that the door is closed, but even if it were not, we would think the gummed paper to establish a clear impossibility, that is not so much so that someone or something enters (into the room, canceling the experiment PES) at the presence of Drake and Rosa Rhine, but rather that someone or something bait, resulting in the possibility that the locked room  is no longer such. Moreover, you can make up a latch, but how you can make up a simple roll of gummed paper?
Here is the skill of Clayton Rawson, in convincing the illusion that there is not as it exists. And how!
The solution, simple (so that it remains open mouth), satisfies all three impossibility indicated before, by providing a solution imaginative and nailing the least likely of the killers to the test of the hypothesis, but the most likely indeed the only, to that of the facts.
A want to analyze, even more in detail, the solution proposed by Merlini, we see that in practice it is a variation ingenious (and more complicated, because it presents the aural illusion) of the trick adopted by Hake Talbot in the locked room, invented in his first novel.

Pietro De Palma

1 comment:

  1. Ciao Pietro - I love this story by Rawson, a real classic in my view - thanks for the very detailed analysis. However, a small note - the photo at the top of your article is not of Clayton Rwson but of Todd Browning, who made the Lugosi version of DRACULA and who also directed MIRACLES FOR SALE, the film version of Rawson's DEATH FROM A TOP HAT. Here is his Wikipedia page (with photo):