William Anthony Parker White, under the nom de plume Anthony Boucher, is widely considered to have been one of the most influential voices of his generation when it came to matters of detective fiction. As an anthologist and reviewer his opinions counted greatly for their insight and fairness, but as well as talking the talk he also walked the walk in a series of seven novels and over 70 short stories published in the most highly-regarded detective and SF magazines of the day.
And yet for all his output, and in part on account of his genre-changing, it’s difficult to know how Boucher’s fictional writing should be remembered. His novels cover no fewer than three different “series”, with the longest-running — centred around Irish PI/Gentleman Detective Fergus O’Breen — comprising only three of them, and the most famous — locked room murder Nine Times Nine (1940) — featuring the marvellous wannabe-detective nun Sister Ursula but succeeded by a follow-up (1942’s Rocket to the Morgue) so inane that most people have probably never picked it up based on reputation alone (which is a shame, because Sister Ursula is one of the most wonderful characters to come out of this era).
Well, well, well, more good news: following the emergence of Erle Stanley Gardner’s missing Cool and Lam novel, it transpires that another classic — and one I’ve personally been trying to find for a while now — is also due back into circulation.
Aaaah, the debut novels of celebrated authors. Would anyone read It Walks by Night and predict The Problem of the Green Capsule or Till Death Do Us Part? Does The Mysterious Affair at Styles in any way prepare you for The Moving Finger, or for Crooked House? Often it’s a challenge to look back on the opening salvo of a career that would go on to become notable and find any vestige of that in those first few hundred pages, and it can be even harder when — as in the case of Noel Vindry’s The House That Kills — you’re waiting 80 years to read it in your native language and are told up front of the author’s own huge contribution to the genre. Frankly, it needs to be The Usual Suspects mixed with The Mystery of the Yellow Room (spoilers for that in this, incidentally) as rewritten by David Mamet…and even then it probably won’t match the hype.
I dunno, I’m starting to think it’s me. For the second time in just over a month — the first being with T.H. White’s Darkness at Pemberley — I’ve read a novel famed for its impossible murder plot and come away going “Well, yeah, but that’s not really an impossible crime, though, is it.” The shooting of millionaire health guru Merlin Broadstone on the fourth floor of his hotel on his exclusive island health farm presents a couple of interesting points, but the fact that he was shot through an open window and that an obvious deduction is ignored for pretty much the entire duration of the case precludes any impossibility in my mind. One perplexing occurrence and the characters failing to consider a particular set of circumstances doesn’t make it an impossible crime. Maybe I’m too narrow-minded, but this doesn’t fly for me.
It’s doubtless a result of the generation I’m from that when I think about fictional murderers wearing distinctive costumes the first jump my mind makes is to the Ghostface killers of Wes Craven’s Scream films. If you’re a little older than me, you may go for Freddy Krueger’s striped jumper, and if you’re younger than me I have no idea what you might pick because I have lost track of whatever passes for popular culture these days, but for me it’s Ghostface.
Believe it or believe it not — though in all likelihood you’ve actually forgotten about it — Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums is nearly ready. Version 1.0, containing 13 of the intended original 15 stories, should be available by the end of the month, missing two stories because the process of wrangling them into shape when it’s just me, TomCat, and our spare time is proving rather more long-winded than previously thought. A v1.1 may be available at a later date once I’ve got these two remaining stories edited into readable form, but I figure most of something is better than all of nothing.
The penultimate case for John Dickson Carr’s first sleuth, Henri Bencolin, opens with a wonderful demonstration of the reputation which that juggernaut of justice enjoys among the less salubrious sections of French society: ‘Bencolin was not wearing his evening clothes, and so they knew that nobody was in danger.’ The palpable sense of relief this engenders in all who see him as he travels from tavern to tavern captures the character with a clarity that shows how much Carr grew as an author over his opening five books, and augurs well for the Fellian delights that would follow soon upon the heels of this as Carr hared his way up the detective fiction firmament and into history. And it sets the scene nicely for a deceptively complex little book that almost feels like a short story in its setup, but is wrought into something more by the expert pacing Carr has honed in the couple of short years since It Walks By Night (1930), showing here his emerging talent for taking a situation that many others would struggle to fill 20 pages with and making every nuance and moment of its 188 pages count.
Our theme is Crime in Costume for the TNBs this month, and I’m interpreting that laterally and looking at James P. Hogan’s unabashedly scientific debut which is essentially a good old-fashioned impossible crime decorated and disguised in SF trappings.