Longtime readers of EQMM will know the name Clayton Rawson from the magazine’s masthead, where it appeared under the title “Managing Editor” for eight years, from 1963 to 1971. But that Clayton Rawson—not his son, who has penned this post—was a name in mystery circles well before coming to the magazine. In the late thirties and early forties, he authored four mystery novels about the world of stage magic, starring The Great Merlini. Two of the books formed the basis for movies, one of them employing the famous Rawson sleuth (see Miracles for Sale, 1939).
Managing editor Clayton Rawson was a man of many talents. As the focus of his writings on the world of magic must lead readers to suspect, he was himself a magician of professional standing. He was also a professional illustrator, who made his living in that career in Chicago for a number of years. He brought the knowledge gained in those earlier professions to EQMM, where he and editor Fred Dannay once designed an entire issue of the magazine to help a fellow magician with a trick (as explained in Josh Pachter’s blog post for this site “Looking Back on a Half-Century Love Affair with EQMM”). The issues of EQMM that came out during Clayton Rawson’s tenure speak to his skills as an editor; so too does the fact that he founded and launched the Mystery Writer’s of America’s newsletter (still in publication today), The Third Degree.
Clayton Rawson Jr. has followed a different road from his father’s, but despite not being a mystery writer, he tells EQMM he inherited the title his father shared with his fictional creation, The Great Merlini. And perhaps there is magic involved in his work too. He produces one-hour specials for the Fox News Channel—nearly eighty such documentaries over the past fifteen years, many of them, as he explained to us, “tied to anniversaries of historic events such Apollo 11, the JFK assassination, and D-Day’s 70th anniversary.”
Although he has not pursued a career as a mystery writer, Clayton Jr. has maintained an interest in mysteries and in his father’s legacy. He put together the photo montage he links to later in this post, incorporating book covers and drawings from his father’s files.—Janet Hutchings
I’m the youngest of my family and my father, magician and mystery writer Clayton Rawson, did most of his writing before I was born, but I did get to help him with his last short mystery story for EQMM: “The World’s Smallest Locked Room” (August 1971). I was a senior at New York University and living in Greenwich Village. My father asked me to check out Washington Square North—just west of Fifth Avenue—to see if a townhouse where his magician detective, The Great Merlini, lived was still standing.
There is, to this day, a lovely row of townhouses to the east. Most are NYU offices. To the west, some of the townhouses—including the fictional Merlini residence—had been torn down and replaced with an apartment building. I’m not sure, but this may be the reason why that last mystery was set in the Rawsons’ hometown, Mamaroneck. I do know that the International House of Pancakes in Mamaroneck—where “The World’s Smallest Locked Room” is set—was one of my father’s favorite restaurants. And, I do know that the story was written to win a bet. It had been many years since a Merlini mystery had been published and my father’s close friend, the mystery writer Robert L. Fish, challenged him to write a new story. Bob later told me he knew he’d lose the bet to my father.
It was great fun to grow up the son of a mystery writer and magician. Every August for many years, my parents hosted a picnic at our home in Mamaroneck. Guests included writers from the Mystery Writers of America, of which my father was a founding member, and a select group of magicians who were members of the other organization he founded: The Witchdoctor’s Club. Both Fred Dannay and Manny Lee were usually there and so was Bob Fish, John Dickson Carr (he and his wife Clarice were also my Godparents), and a dozen or more other MWA members and as many magicians.
A highlight of the picnic was an evening of magic performed by The Witchdoctor’s Club members and The Great Merlini on the stage my father built in the backyard. It had trap doors, spotlights, and curtains made by my mother. The last of those shows featured the levitation seen in this linked montage. My sisters were the “floating ladies” and my brother and I were behind the curtains. Although today David Copperfield and Criss Angel perform amazing levitations, back in the sixties, no one did it better than The Great Merlini . . . a.k.a. Clayton Rawson.