The Footprints on the Ceiling

Rawson, Clayton - The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939)


The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) contains good storytelling in its opening third (Chapters 1-10), with exciting nocturnal adventures in a now obscure corner of the New York City of its day. These sections benefit from the Golden Age interest in both architecture and landscape, with an island, its buildings and the surrounding waterways nicely imagined and described. Unfortunately, the mystery problem expounded here is ultimately given a complex, but not especially ingenious solution. The subplot about Lamb is the best part of the solution. Also good: the subplot about the footprints. Rawson will include another footprint mystery in "Nothing Is Impossible" (1958). The portrait of psychical research in these early chapters will return in the short Merlini tale, "From Another World" (1948).


This starts out well (Chapters 1-10), with vivid nocturnal adventures in a little known part of New York City. Neat description of waterways, islands, and island life - something I've never seen in any other novel about NYC, mystery or not. But after this, Rawson's puzzle plot solutions seem pretty ho-hum. There is a tiny subplot about footprints - anticipating the later footprint mystery in Rawson's short story, "Nothing Is Impossible" (1958). And another small subplot about a man named Lamb is good.


As Robert Adey points out, only a small fraction of this book deals with impossibilities. The same is true with Rawson's next novel, "The Headless Lady". The descriptions of Rawson's works as being impossible crime centered can be a bit misleading in these cases.


Chapter 18 of The Footprints on the Ceiling contains witty allusions to S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. These are all members of the Van Dine school. As Rawson points out in the novel, all three are amateur sleuths, like Merlini. We might add that Rawson shares with these Van Dine school authors a New York City locale, and characters chosen from show biz and the intelligentsia. He also shares with Van Dine and Queen a fondness for detailed investigations of crime scenes. Merlini is often expounding expertly on various subjects, also like Philo Vance and Ellery Queen. So Rawson seems like a member of the Van Dine school, as well as being an impossible crime writer.


Mike Grost