On Anthony Boucher

This piece was originally written as the introduction to an Anthony Boucher detective-novel omnibus selected by Maxim Jakubowski and published by Zomba Books (London, 1984). Maxim's choices were The Case of the Seven of Calvary, Nine Times Nine, Rocket to the Morgue and The Case of the Crumpled Knave. Returning to the article in 1994, I'm adding a tiny bit on some of Boucher's others. My apologies to Bouchercon devotees to whom a great deal of this must be very, very familiar stuff (a pretentious excuse for relating familiar material appears in the final section – but it's all the committee's fault for asking me). Now read on....

• • •

Do you remember the days of detection's Golden Age – when again and again the impossible crime would be committed in the locked room, when the merest dust-grain of a clue would successively point to four different murderers, when the Detection Club's code of fair play solemnly insisted on seemly moderation in such plot devices as Secret Passages, Identical Twins, Mysterious Chinamen and Poisons Unknown To Science? For sufficient reasons I don't remember that time too well myself, but those four novels of Anthony Boucher's gave me again that feeling of nostalgia for a day when I happened not to have been born.

Golden Ages are awkward things to pin down. In Queen's Quorum, Ellery Queen decided there had been two such ages for (short) detective stories, with the second ending in 1920 and no hope that any later "moderns" could equal the landmark efforts of Poe, Doyle, Chesterton and (surprise!) Melville Davisson Post. Edmund Wilson's mid-forties essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" enthusiastically put the boot into practically all crime fiction since Sherlock Holmes. But some other critics like to assume a sort of linear progression of literary wonderfulness, whereby the top writers of today are by definition better than those of yesterday because we've come a long way since then. You know, the way Mozart was cast into eternal oblivion by the coming of the Beatles....

In another genre it's been perceptively said, "The golden age of science fiction is about fifteen." Tastes may change in later life, but what you read when you're first hooked is likely to stay with you as a pattern of the real thing, in SF or in crime.

The age whose reprints hooked me was that of the classical "fair play" detective story which flourished from, say, the early thirties to the Second World War. (Drawing these lines across the century always irritates by what it leaves out – notably most of G. K. Chesterton, the best detective short-story writer of all, who as in other things was ahead of his time.) In those days Ellery Queen was publishing his murderously exhaustive logic-problem novels. Agatha Christie, like a con man inviting you to find the lady, kept shuffling and reshuffling her tatty pack of characters, and even as you admired the legerdemain there was the weary knowledge that the old dear would cheat you at denouement time. John Dickson Carr and his unsecret alias Carter Dickson, boasting between them more than eighty distinct solutions to the traditional locked-room puzzle, ran the most dazzling magic-show of this age but later went mysteriously into eclipse. Tastes changed.

The trademark of the period, visible in the Boucher novels selected for that omnibus, was a conscious artificiality ... an awareness that this kind of detective story was an elaborate game with the reader. Half the fun was in leading you up the garden path by playing with unspoken conventions. Does the great detective usually confide in a harmless Watson who tells the story and thus plainly can't be the murderer? Very well, let's boggle the reader with a story where Watson is the murderer. Is medical evidence about the body normally accepted as infallible? Let's make the doctor's time-of-death estimate, based on blood clotting, completely and excusably wrong because the deceased was a haemophiliac. Is the reader rightly suspicious of identical twins? How about placing a pair of them face up on the table, as it were, and then confounding the reader by dealing in a triplet! Does John Dickson Carr's essay on locked room mysteries (in The Hollow Man, known in America and thus to Boucher as The Three Coffins) seem completely exhaustive? Surely we can dream up just one more ruse whereby the corpse is found in a sealed room which no murderer could have entered, from which no murderer could have escaped...?

You might imagine that this Golden Age passed because writers ran out of permutations and perversions of the old plot devices like locked rooms, fiddled clocks seen in mirrors, mistaken identities, recordings of typewriters, cryptic dying messages, forged fingerprints, infernal machines and hints of the supernatural (which, said the conventions, may be introduced only to be rationally explained away). But far more formalized puzzles are still popular: chess problems, crosswords, and those incredibly boring and repetitive "logic problems". The puzzle-plot could almost be said to have survived without the traditional detective novel of which it was a part.

What seemed to happen was that conscious flamboyance of plot seemed to slip out of fashion. Somebody has probably written a frighteningly intelligent thesis about the effects of post-war austerity on realism in detective stories, leading to the argument, maybe not overtly expressed but lurking there somewhere all the same –

The Joy of Plot somehow stayed OK in science fiction, or upmarket, avant-garde novels, or even crime stories by those authors who'd crashed the fame barrier to orbit like Agatha Christie beyond the reach of any change in fashion's climate. But when SF author John Sladek wrote a couple of enjoyable and traditionally intricate detective puzzles in the seventies (Black Aura and Invisible Green), he found that ...

"I was turning out a product the supermarkets didn't need any more – stove polish or yellow cakes of laundry soap. One could starve very quickly writing locked-room mysteries now. SF has much more glamour and glitter attached to it, in these high-tech days."

Fashions continue to shift, though. Crime authors from the thirties and forties come and go, bursting back into paperback for a few years and lying low again for a few years more. The Zomba omnibus brought back into print (after a gap which in Britain had lasted since the Golden Age) four of the best novels by the man who most often wrote as Anthony Boucher.

• • •

Of course all those references to science fiction aren't mere happenstance. William Anthony Parker White, to give him his full name, was well-known in both SF and detection circles. He was born in Oakland, California, on 21 August 1911, and until his death in 1968 spent most of his working days as an author, editor and critic of these two genres plus – another major interest – opera and music. Thus he regularly reviewed detective stories for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the New York Times Book Review; fantasy and SF for the New York Times and (under his other byline H. H. Holmes) the Chicago Sun-Times and New York Herald Tribune; and it shouldn't take lifelong study of Holmesian methods to deduce what he reviewed for Opera News.

From 1949 to 1958 he edited the newly-founded Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), for many decades the most literate of SF magazines. His editorial influence and with his intelligent, sympathetic reviewing were major forces in boosting the respectability of American magazine SF. The last years of his editorship brought F&SF the first of many Hugo awards as Best Professional SF Magazine.

One of Boucher's editorial quirks was a fascination with Catholicism (in addition to detection, opera and cats). His own most noted SF story "The Quest for St Aquin" features a superhumanly intelligent robot which embraces the Catholic faith through sheer logical reasoning. Two F&SF authors, Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, tried to profit from the editorial obsessions with a story about a nun's cat which solves a detective puzzle – "I think we worked opera into it somewhere, too," confessed Silverberg long after – but Boucher restrained himself from buying the semi-spoof tale. This Catholic interest appears in three of the four anthologized novels.

Anthony Boucher also edited True Crime Detective magazine (1952-53), half a dozen detection anthologies and, in succession, three major American lines of crime fiction: the Mercury Mysteries (1952-55), the Dell Great Mystery Library (1957-60) and the Collier Mystery Classics (1962-68). Between 1945 and 1948 he wrote radio plays for the Sherlock Holmes and Case Book of Gregory Hood series in the USA. The Mystery Writers of America elected him their President for 1951, and three times voted him the Edgar Allan Poe award for excellence in criticism (1946, 1950, 1953). In 1970, after his death, American detective fans began annual conventions in his memory – "Bouchercons" – and the 1973 event was marked by the publication of Boucher's selected criticism under the title Multiplying Villainies. Another nonfiction book, published during his lifetime, was Ellery Queen: A Double Profile (1951); this of course dealt with the two authors who between them were the late Ellery Queen.

His fictional output wasn't huge. Apart from the multiple collaboration The Marble Forest (1951, as by "Theo Durrant", also known as The Big Fear), it consists of seven detective novels and barely fifty short stories, some mysteries, some SF/fantasy and some an enjoyable mixture of both.

The novels are: The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937), The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939), Nine Times Nine (1940), The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940, reprinted as Blood on Baker Street), The Case of the Solid Key (1941), Rocket to the Morgue (1942) and The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942). Three collections of short stories exist – Far and Away; Eleven Fantasy and SF Stories (1955), The Compleat Werewolf and Other Stories of Fantasy and SF (1969) and Exeunt Murderers (The Best Mystery Stories of Anthony Boucher) edited by Francis M. Nevins Jr and Martin H. Greenberg (1983).

Boucher himself didn't draw a hard and fast line between his crime and his SF. The popular character Fergus O'Breen, an Irish private detective with an erratic line in brashness and blarney, is introduced in Crumpled Knave and reappears not only in further detective novels but also in lighthearted fantasies like "Elsewhen", when the fiendish killer sneaks in and out of the locked room by time machine, and "Gandolphus", featuring a disembodied extraterrestrial to do the dirty work in a similar case. It's hard to read these without imagining the outraged faces of Detection Club members, like something in H. M. Bateman's riper cartoons: The Man Who Introduced The Supernatural into A Detective Story And Failed To Explain It Away! In "The Compleat Werewolf", O'Breen duly meets a Professor of Philology who develops this tendency to turn into a wolf, and ... but perhaps I should stop and assure readers that the novels themselves contain only the purest and most legitimate jiggery-pokery. They'll lead you up the garden path and pull whole skeins of wool over your eyes, but they'll do it fairly.

A closer look, then, at the four novels of the omnibus: two locked-room mysteries in the Carr tradition and two Queen-like stories with multifaced clues and suspicion skipping round and round the circle of suspects in a cheerfully deadly game of pass-the-parcel. Despite the awful temptation to reveal Too Much (like cabbies who take you to the Mousetrap theatre and shout the murderer's name after you if your tip's too mingy), I think this bit can be safely read without spoiling your first encounter with the books themselves.

The Case of the Seven of Calvary was Boucher's first novel, and excellent fun it is, with a pleasantly academic flavour. Armchair sleuth Dr John Ashwin is full of tantalizing erudition in such matters as Sanskrit – one up on the don-detectives with their Latin and Greek quotations – Thomas Hood, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, detective stories in general.... As Dr Fell remarks in The Hollow Man: "We're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not. Let's not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let's candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book." Bravo. And Dr Ashwin plainly feels the same.

"Holmes, of course, would begin by deducing from the ice pick that the murderer was a cuckold; but I think that a bit far-fetched."

"A cuckold? Just how – "

"Because his household still employs an icebox in these days of electric refrigeration, a fact most probably occasioned by his wife's intrigue with the proverbial iceman. Elementary, my dear Lamb ..."

Meanwhile that Catholic erudition comes out in the account of the Seven of Calvary, symbol of a weird heretical cult which deserves its place beside other such sinisterly practical groups as the Red-headed League or the Ten Teacups. I particularly like the footnote towards the end of chapter three, in which a grinning Anthony Boucher pours cold water over the one safe guess the reader has made so far ... prior to jolting complacency even further by ruthless application of the principle quoted tongue-in-cheek by James Thurber: "The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim."

A footnote in the penultimate chapter issues the Queenian Challenge to the Reader, inviting you to unravel the whole tangle of misdirection before Dr Ashwin. What could be more traditional? It's a pity that despite the hints on the final page, there were no more stories of Ashwin.

Nine Times Nine and Rocket to the Morgue appeared under Boucher's pseudonym H. H. Holmes: both feature the somewhat unlikely detective Sister Ursula, a nun (yes indeed) of the spurious Order of St Martha of Bethany. Both are locked-room mysteries with original solutions. Nine Times Nine, definitely the better of the two, again indulges in the "noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book": chapter fourteen features a discussion of the book's locked-room problem in terms of fiction, and specifically in terms of Carr's famous analysis "The Locked-Room Lecture" in The Hollow Man. Which is putting the cards on the table with a vengeance, since in retrospect you can see (you won't see it at the time) that the whole impossible-crime trick of Nine Times Nine is a clever fusion of (a) a stage property from The Hollow Man itself and (b) a throwaway line in that book, concerning Ellery Queen's Chinese Orange Mystery. "Ellery Queen has shown us still another method [of tampering with bolts], entailing the use of the dead man himself – but a bald statement of this, taken out of its context, would sound so wild as to be unfair to that brilliant gentleman."

Other assets like Boucher's usual witty dialogue, and the enjoyably loony "Children of Light" cult – headed, if you please, by the Wandering Jew – help make this the author's best work.

Sister Ursula, the harassed cop Lt. Marshall, and other characters from Nine Times Nine return in Rocket to the Morgue. Here the locked-room puzzle is weaker, and indeed proves to be a slightly naughty spoof of one favourite Golden Age cliché-cum-plot-device. This story is the one most popular with the SF fans, since it's set in the world of awful "pulp" SF writing which Boucher knew so well and (via F&SF) helped raise from the gutter.

Several SF authors and editors appear thinly disguised under their own pen-names: even Anthony Boucher is present, this book being by "H. H. Holmes". Anson Macdonald and Lyle Monroe were pseudonyms of Robert Heinlein; Don Stuart, editor of Surprising Stories and Worlds Beyond magazines, was John W. Campbell of Astounding SF and Unknown; Rene Lafayette was one name used by L. (for Lafayette) Ron Hubbard while still a humble hack, before he made his dubious pile by inventing Scientology. The in-jokes are strictly for the fans, but Boucher's SF shop-talk paints a lurid picture of those days' combined ghastliness and delusive grandeur, with unpolished authors mapping the Ultimate Galactic Future of the Human Race at one cent per word....

Chapter three contains a jolly discussion of SF and the detective story, pushing John W. Campbell's belief that the genres couldn't be mixed. Clearly there's no such thing as a locked room when you can have time-machines, psychic powers and fourth-dimensional snickersnees to reach through the walls. Boucher's mouthpiece character doesn't realize (though surely Boucher himself did) that an ad-hoc gadget like this is precisely the same cheat as the last-chapter introduction of a hitherto unmentioned secret passage which allows whole platoons of murderers to stalk in and out of the "locked" room with their poison vials and blunt instruments. A good number of authors from Isaac Asimov to Larry Niven later wrote successful fair-play detection in the SF genre – while Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" series cleverly transplanted detection into a fantasy world of black arts and forensic sorcery, without loss of rigour.

Besides two mysterious stabbings, Rocket to the Morgue boasts a properly science-fictional though strictly prosaic murder by rocket. Now there's a novelty.

The Case of the Crumpled Knave pits private eye Fergus O'Breen against one of those Ellery Queen riddles where an enigmatic dying message and a puzzling scatter of clues are suddenly marshalled into a murderous pattern, precise as a mathematical equation. Only, of course, the clues are two-faced at the very least, and the equation is one of those with several solutions. This one is difficult to discuss further without giving too much away – but keep your eye on apoplectic old Colonel Rand, who is not what he seems....

Again the book is conscious of its own artificiality, with even the detective musing in literary terms: "She's read too many of those novels where the person who Knows Too Much is the second victim...." The classical detective story is an artificial literary form, all right, but not to be despised as such. So, after all, is the sonnet.

• • •

So much for Maxim Jakubowski's omnibus selections. To say a word or two about the remaining novels.... The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars is enjoyably daft, and if I'd been choosing the books I'd have picked it in place of Crumpled Knave. The detective puzzle may not be staggeringly complex, but its light-hearted references back to the Holmes canon are fun: "recursive detection", as SF critics would call it. A devoted Baker Street Irregulars club gets entangled in a Hollywood murder case with such clues as a dancing-men cipher, five orange pips, Rache scrawled in blood on walls, a gun whisked away on a string as in "The Problem of Thor Bridge", an aluminium crutch, the dog in the night-time, a severed ear in a cardboard box, a Sussex vampire, etc. Even "Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife" get a mention, although we are spared the Giant Rat of Sumatra. After all the playfulness, a soberly topical note (for 1940) is struck near the end.

O'Breen's other adventures The Case of the Solid Key and The Case of the Seven Sneezes are more conventional thrillers, both with surprise other-side-of-the-coin solutions based on those patented reversible clues. The eponymous key of the first book is a minor ingenuity: having no hole for a key-ring, it can't be turned from outside the door by the particular classic device of a string pulling a lever placed in the hole ... which at first seems a bit feeble (there are so many other ways of cheating with keys) but does usefully set the reader thinking about lever systems rather than the well-known variety of misdirection actually used. As for the sneezes, I hope Boucher's tongue was tucked well into his cheek when he asked us to believe in the hereditary O'Breen allergy which causes "always exactly seven sneezes, no more, no less" – allowing him to deduce the incriminating presence of cat-fur from a careful count of his own spasms. H'mm!

The posthumous collection Exeunt Murderers features an informative introduction by Francis M. Nevins Jr (from which I pinched some of the above data); nine stories of the interestingly alcoholic ex-cop Nick Noble, who solves cases while swilling cheap sherry and brushing nonexistent flies from his face; two more investigations by Sister Ursula from Nine Times Nine; eleven miscellaneous squibs and japes; and a useful checklist of Boucher's fiction.

• • •

There is one supposedly crushing criticism you hear about Golden Age detection. It's approximately the same as the criticism of landscape gardening in this exchange from Thomas Love Peacock:

"I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct quality, which I call unexpectedness."

"Pray, sir," said Mr Milestone, "by what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for a second time?"

Or: where is the charm of an intricate detective story when you read it again with full knowledge of whodunnit? Isn't there something inferior about a novel which can only be read once?

There are two replies to boring old Mr Milestone. First comes the snide one: with most of, say, Agatha Christie's novels you'll have forgotten the details next day, just as you wouldn't remember where the queen actually was after being fooled again by the three-card trick. The second and better answer applies with equal accuracy to landscape gardening. If properly done, that quality of "unexpectedness" brings new satisfaction the second time round, since now you can appreciate the subtleties of design and misdirection which lead up to what was a pure surprise but now reveals itself as the culmination of good craftsmanship. To take an outrageously lofty example, does Hamlet lose its force when you watch it and happen to know that all the main characters are going to get it in the neck?

This makes detective stories sound far more pretentious than they are. Let's just conclude that, if not one of the unassailable Greats, Boucher stands well above the rabble of thirties and forties crime writers. He writes amusingly and well, his plots are nicely constructed along the classical lines of the Golden Age, and almost all his books will stand being read a second time.

You may now go and read them.