This is one of the many mysteries between 1900 and 1940 dealing with spiritualism debunking and the trickery and gadgetry that was (and probably still is) employed by fake mediums and phony psychics. Two characters from Death from a Top Hat re-appear in Footprints on the Ceiling in an altogether different light and play much larger roles in the novel.
Of course something goes wrong the minute they arrive on the island. On route to the seance Merlini tells Harte about the legend of a pirate who supposedly haunts the island. The two men see lights in an abandoned house on the north end of the island and rush to investigate. There they find the rigid dead body of Linda Skelton who has apparently been poisoned with cyanide. How and why did an agoraphobic who never left the main house end up so far away? And who killed her?
The story is one of the most complicated plots I've read of any era, let alone the Golden Age. It's filled to the brim with baffling incidents that all seem to be impossible. A fire that no one could have started, the transporting of Linda's body to the haunted house, a bullet that seems to have traveled around a corner at 45 degree angle, a seemingly encoded message found on a typewriter ribbon, a nude body found in a locked hotel room, and of course the titular marks found on the ceiling at the scene of Linda Skelton's death. Magic, misdirection, acrobatics and clever gadgets all play a part in the solution of the various mysteries and murders.
The cast of characters consists of so many rascals, evidence tinkerers, vengeful would-be murderers, that at one point it almost seems like a parody of Murder on the Orient Express (1934). As a consequence of the convoluted shenanigans of this shifty devious group, in addition to unmasking the somewhat surprising murderer, everyone is arrested for some offense and hauled away by the police. The many pronouncements of this teeming mass of miscreants and their misdeeds makes for a long trawl through the final chapters consisting of three -- count 'em three -- summing-up explanations unnecessarily peppered with tangential commentary and sarcastic quips from Merlini. It goes on interminably and the many readers will no doubt find themselves agreeing with the impatient and irascible Inspector Gavigan who keeps demanding that Merlini get to the point faster.
|Original map of Skelton Island used as frontispiece in US 1st edition|
(Click to enlarge for to see all the detail)
This is more of a refresher for me rather than something wholly new, but Ross Harte launches into monologue mode in the chapter titled "Thirty Deadly Poisons" with a litany of toxic chemicals. He reminds us that photography is one of the most poisonous professions of the pre-World War 2 era and could prove hazardous to one's health if not fatal.
I learned of an unusual dermatological side effect of the use of silver nitrate in medicine called argyria. It's an irreversible condition in which the silver turns one's skin blue-gray. Merlini talks of the Blue Men (and sometimes women) who suffered from this horror and tells Harte and Dr. Gail many of these people joined circus sideshows in order to make a living and escape shame and embarrassment in "normal" civilization.
Even with the long lectures, the complicated plot and several subplots, and Merlini's insufferable ego and sarcasm it cannot be denied that Rawson has made the book exciting and action filled. The opening chapters read more like an adventure novel than a murder mystery. Footprints on the Ceiling mixes haunted house legends, pirate lore, the search for lost treasure, deep sea diving techniques and new inventions, con artists and fraudulent spiritualism, and circus performers in a dizzying plot of inventive murders and ingenious criminality. Rawson almost succeeds in making his second novel a brilliant addition to American mysteries of the Golden Age. His penchant for show off esoterica so reminiscent of the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen novels and the innumerable instances of shunning the fair play techniques of his colleagues, however, keep this mystery novel from being a true masterpiece. As it stands it can only be thought of as a clever and entertaining diversion.