Day Jobs of the Detectives

Reading & Writing


When I gave Arthur Bryant a spare time job, I decided to make him a London tour guide. It seemed an appropriate hobby for a bobby. And over the decades, detectives have had all kinds of other jobs…

Clayton Rawson started studying to be a magician when he was eight. Later he put his magic skills into practice by penning the excellent ‘Death From A Top Hat’. His detective is self-taught, one of those louche interferers the police had no trouble allowing onto crime scenes in the inter-war period. The Great Merlini runs a magic shop, but his knowledge of optical trickery and mental misdirection alert him to the craftiness of thieves and murderers. He appeared in four novels and four collections of short stories.

This period of American mystery writing is more associated with hard-boiled fiction than the traditional butler-did-it Golden Age style of British authors, but Rawson’s detective crossed that line, coming over as a sort of US Father Brown of magic. The murders are loopy, in one case involving a death in a locked room wherein the doors and windows have all been taped shut, but the solutions are fair and plausible. Rawson pitted his wits against readers, creating playful plots that fans could at least have a chance of solving.

Rawson became one of the four founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, who still present their annual Edgar Awards for excellence in crime writing. The Great Merlini featured in two movies and a television pilot, but there were other magician detectives; Dakor the Detective-Magician appeared in 1940, and the TV show ‘Jonathan Creek’ has a sleuth solving mysteries through his knowledge of illusionism.

From 1910 onward, many fictional detectives had day jobs that provided them with the skills for specialist investigation. They were chefs and antique dealers, civil servants, musicians, actresses, artists and mountaineers. Many were simply gentlemen of leisure, crimefighting being something you’d do if you were simply rich and bored. Both ‘The Encyclopaedia of British Crime Writing’ by Barry Forshaw and ‘Great British Fictional Detectives’ by Russell James catalogue these amateur sleuths.

I suppose you’d class Miss Marple as Busybody; she insisted, somewhat unbelievably, that her knowledge of village life taught her to understand human nature even when it turned murderous.

One of my favourites is Colonel Henry Ponsonby, royal equerry, who turns up in HK Fleming’s charming thriller ‘The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria’. As the Queen’s train to Balmoral is hijacked, HRH, Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Prince of Wales and his disreputable guests must be saved from a dastardly Fenian plot by Ponsonby. Like many of these older tales, Fleming’s volume is a virtual masterclass in good story construction, witty, erudite and effortlessly charming, the antithesis of the kind of ‘Grim Noir’ one-note thrillers that dominate bookshelves.


9 comments on “Day Jobs of the Detectives”

  1. Peter Arcane says:

    You keep coming back to Magic… I’m curious I can’t recall any mention in Paperboy re: you having an interest in Magic. So where does this spawn from?

    I read recently that an interest in Magic is a phase that almost all boys/men go through at some stage of their life. Some (big) kids get hooked and never let go – but again I can’t recall any mention in Paperboy.

  2. Ken Murray says:

    I seem to recall Bill Bixby used to star (in his pre Hulk days) in a tv mystery series called The Magician?

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Wonderful, you’ve mentioned another author and book that I really like. The Great Merlini stories are great fun, clever and diverting, Carr-like and very well told in the classic Thirties style. “Death from a Top Hat” was published here by Grosset & Dunlap in 1938.
    Many years ago I found a copy of Top Hat in excellent-condition, but dustcover-less, in a used bookshop. I bought it for a song, and I don’t sing – not since puberty cracked my voice – and it being summer, I took it home, and read it straight through. It turned out to be a locked room mystery. How excellent is that (?): Carr and Clayton Rawson.
    Like many used books, this one has a dedication in well done script, blue ink, and a fine nib and 75 years old. “For Harry, my favorite magician – May we always enjoy the friendship we have known the past two years. Alice, March 5, 1940”
    A gift book from a woman to a man, a two year acquaintance, the use of the word “friendship” and a date not far before WWII and the United States’ entrance into that fray.
    Who were these people? Could, did, their “friendship” progress or dwindle? Did WWII wreck their relationship? Is the book “remaindered” from his or their library? Questions raised by 20 or so words delicately written into a mystery book. A small mystery within a classic mystery. Is this the cornel of another mystery? Would a set of her/his/their gift books to each trace their separate lives or lives together?
    A plot idea? Me thinks so.

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Possibly slightly off topic – I work with computers, and they only seem to feature in paranoid conspiracy thrillers. Given today’s headlines this is understandable, but most of the time they feature in people’s lives in as mundane a manner as bicycles. Would like to see some detecting work that recognises the 21st century without all of western civilisation being at stake. I know of at least one murder trial where most of the witnesses met for the first time in court because their relations with each other were all on-line. I wonder if a dot com millionaire might make a modern gentleman sleuth?

  5. pheeny says:

    The magician as detective works well because of the knowledge of psychology, puzzle solving and deception required for both roles – Jonathan Creek is a modern example that springs to mind

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Ken, I like your idea and can imagine it working well since a Bill Gates type could meet almost anyone and could be drawn into almost any sort of puzzle.
    I really enjoyed the Jonathan Creek series, including the windmill he lived in. One of my favourite moments was him pointing out that potpourri doesn’t release perfume unless you are very close and stir the petals, so the smell of roses had to have been otherwise introduced.

  7. John says:

    Dan – Clayton Rawson’s books were published by G P Putnam and Sons. Grosset & Dunlap is a reprint house. Probably why the jacketless copy you bought “for a song” was so cheap. Any copies of the 1st editions of the Merlini books I’ve seen start at $100 or more. And those are without a DJ.

    Carr and Rawson were best friends. They once had a bet in which they tried to outdo each other in a challenge to write a locked room mystery in which the room was sealed with tape. Carr ended up writing HE WOULDN’T KILL PATIENCE and Rawson wrote a short story…can’t recall the title just now.

    Admin — Wasn’t this one of your “Invisible Ink” columns a while back? Or am I just having another spell of deja vu?

  8. Dan Terrell says:

    Just downloaded a collection of the complete Rawson stories so, perhaps, I can identify the short story.
    Yeah after typing in Grosset & Dunlap, John, I thought “dang” G & D did mostly reprints, but there is no edit function on these comment rectangles as I well know.

  9. Terenzio says:

    Yes, the Great Merlini – one of the most amusing detectives from what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Mysteries. These mysteries have a lot in common with Carr with their locked room scenarios and eccentric characters. Also the narrator/sidekick/friend of Merlini, Ross Harte is quite similar to Jeff Marle in the Carr mysteries. Except I find Marle comes off as a college educated bloke; whereas, Harte comes off as a more street-smart bloke. You need to enjoy all the American phrases, jargon and wisecracking common in the 30s and 40s thrillers, mysteries and gangster films of that era to enjoy Rawson’s stories. Carr’s stories tend to be more refined as far as speech and dialogue compared to Rawson’s stories. Even taking into account some of the outrageous things that comes out of the mouths of Sir Henry Merrivale and Dr. Gideon Fell. Still Rawson’s stories are excellent mysteries for those who like magic mixed in with locked room murders.

    Alas Jonathan no longer lives in a windmill. He has been given an expensive modern house in nice part of London filled with expensive modern furniture along with an equally expensive wife named Polly whose father is wealthy and owns an advertising company. Subsequently Jonathan works for the “family firm”. He is now a respectable citizen thanks to his wife and has put his former life behind him until a stranger murder occurs of course. And out of the closet – comes the famous coat and not Jonathan. The most recent mystery, The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb is available from Amazon UK for a reasonable price. Three new shows have been commissioned. Filming in 2013 with a release date in 2014. Despite the changes, the show is still extremely enjoyable to watch and well worth seeing especially Detective Inspector Gideon Pryke who is hilarious in The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb. And what’s even more is the lovely Joanna Lumley is also in the show.

    I shall retire to the boudoir with a lovely kir before dinner and celebrate the demise of D.O.M.A. and perhaps peruse the papers to see what is happening in the world of art and commerce.

    As always, à bientôt from the one in the gorgeous purple dressing gown and exquisite velvet slippers… accept I must confess to being a few pounds heavier after a recent trip to Berlin. All that beer and wiener schnitzel does do terrible things to ones figure and unfortunately I have never been able to turn down a large wiener – schnitzel of course.

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