Freelance scribe Ross Harte is working on an essay about the sad state of the modern mystery novel when a scream comes from the hallway: “There is death in that room!” Harte finds a trio of conjurers trying to get into the apartment of his neighbor, the mysterious Dr. Cesare Sabbat, famed occultist and, for the past few minutes, a corpse.
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"Wanted To Rent: Haunted House, preferably in rundown condition. Must be adequately supplied with interesting ghost.” Ross Harte knows that only the Great Merlini could be behind such a strange classified ad. A magician, salesman, and occasional sleuth, Merlini is producing radio investigations of paranormal activity, and he needs ghosts to put on-air.
Summer heat is choking New York, and the Great Merlini - conjurer, sleuth, and godson of P. T. Barnum - offers his friend Ross Harte a chance to get out of town. Before they can depart for the annual convention of the Society of American Magicians, a nervous woman enters Merlini’s shop, begging to purchase his most popular illusion: the headless lady. When the magician refuses to sell his last copy, she steals it.
When Ross Harte gets into a screaming match with his fiance’s father, millionaire Dudley Wolff, the old man cuts Harte’s beloved out of his will. As far as Wolff is concerned, this is an empty threat, because he plans to live forever. He has a team of scientists working to extend his life as long as possible, and should they fail, a renowned psychic will contact him after his death.
The Great Merlini waits impatiently at the door of the Hotel Astor. Inspector Church is late for his meeting with the famed magician, with whom he consults when homicide cases venture outside the realm of the possible. A ventriloquist has attempted suicide in the wake of his wife’s mysterious strangulation. Among the suspects are a snake charmer, a nine-foot giant, a tattooed man, and a gaggle of crap players - and this is one of Merlini’s simple cases.