#152: The Nick Noble Stories of Anthony Boucher (1942-54)

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).

exeunt-murderersLooking then to Boucher’s short stories, I discover the character of Nick Noble, subject of nine stories which have been collected along with several others (including two featuring Sister Ursula!) in Exeunt Murderers: The Best Mystery Stories of Anthony Boucher, edited by Francis M. Nevins, Jr and Martin H. Greenberg.  Noble, a genius detective in the Nero Wolfe mold, is an ex-cop with a mind like a trap who is able to puzzle out the links in the most confounding of cases brought to him.  And the cases must be brought to him as, since being kicked out of the Force following some political maneuvering by a savvy higher-up, he is to be found in a cheap Mexican bar slowly drinking himself to death with water glasses full of cheap sherry.

Now, wait, I know: cliché ahoy, right?  He’s an alcoholic ex-cop wrongly kicked off the Force but he’s still got it, and the cases brought to him have a gradually vulnerary effect as he shows the supposed “real” police how it should be done, etc, etc, snore.  But, honestly, Boucher is such a fine observer of character that it’s almost contrary to his DNA to write something that basic.  Noble is possibly the most heartbreaking central character I’ve yet encountered — though “central” may be pushing it a little, since he usually inly shows up once the crime is established as baffling and the detectives come running to him — and Boucher gives you someone who is cracked beyond repair and yet still has enough about him for some light to shine through while skipping nimbly over the tropes into which a lesser author would be unavoidably wrenched.

One or two aspects of repetition — unavoidable since these stories were published over a period of 12 years, but much more obvious when read close together — do come close to dull trope territory: Noble swiping at the imaginary fly that keeps landing on his nose, the fact that he’s always found in the third booth on the left (except in one story where Boucher seems to forget this and he’s found in the fourth…), the oft-repeated story of his downfall, the references to his eyes glazing over as he makes the connections that have eluded everyone else, but these are really more evanescent in nature once the brilliance of the character shines through.  His wonderful staccato way of talking (“Interested?  Oh yes.  Pretty problem.  Pattern.  Thanks, Herman.  Proof tomorrow.”) takes some getting used to, but makes the incision of his insight somehow all the more believable — there’s rarely a wasted ounce of fat in anything he says, be it in unpicking a case or in the terrible moments when you realise just how broken this man is.

The actor stared at him for a long time and said at last, almost with awe, “What are you?”

Nick Noble brushed the invisible fly from his nose.  “Thirsty,” he said, fondling the empty sherry glass.

The character of Noble is so important to these stories for two reasons.  The first is that none of the other characters really register — perhaps an inevitability given the standalone nature of these stories, as most of those who do feature will be victims, guilty parties, context, or suspects, and so are unlikely to come up again.  Most frequently featured of the police is Detective Donald MacDonald, and he’s little more than a reader-insert who occasionally gets to find someone attractive or be a bit befuddled or easily misdirected.  MacDonald is perfectly serviceable in this role, there’s nothing unlikable or unpleasant about him, but beyond the odd moment of reflection or a dash of confusion he’s barely characterised at all.  So Noble has to be the one to shoulder these tales and make them appealing, make them something you want to return to and give them a sense of consistency, and Boucher achieves this with relative effortlessness.

ellery_queens_mystery_aust_194708_n2The second reason for Noble’s importance in selling these is that, if we’re being honest, as stories of detection they aren’t really all that good.  A couple of them are diverting enough, and the core ideas in ‘Rumor, Inc.’ (1944) and ‘Crime Must Have a Stop’ (1950) are exploited well, but the nature of the majority of the solutions is wholly unsatisfying.  ‘The Punt and the Pass’ (1946) presents American football with the type of mythological significance that most of its fans would claim it has, but take the same notion and apply it to any other sport — to cricket, say — and the central premise of the solution is absolutely laughable.  And it could be apply to cricket, too — there’s nothing particularly American football about the deductions, it just happens to be set in a milieu featuring that game.

The crime in the first Noble story, ‘Screwball Division’ (1942) doesn’t even really make sense.  I mean, motive-wise it just about hangs together, but in terms of the thing that makes it so baffling and requires recourse to Noble in the first place…there’s just no point to it, and once unravelled it doesn’t really provide any new perspective on anything.  That could almost be made the entire purpose of the story, but one suspects that Boucher missed this opportunity in the mix of everything else he was trying to establish in this new universe (and I don’t blame him for that).  ‘QL 696. C9’ and ‘Death of a Patriarch’ (both 1943) are the kind of technically fair-play story that I really struggle to enjoy: the sort that requires some astonishingly specialist knowledge going in that, yes, is technically in the public domain but can’t really be introduced in the context required because it would give everything away.  Thus, you just wait for Noble’s astoundingly wide grasp and recall to cough up the right answer and you go “Oh, so it was that, then.”

‘Like Count Palmieri’ (1946) is a moderately clever idea, but contains a moment of character revelation for Noble that is one of the most astonishingly desolating things I think I’ve read, and that overshadows the plot such as it is.  I mean, there’s some fascinating esoterica about rare music, and a very nice piece of subtle clewing (if you feel like being a little generous…), but the context Boucher provides in pretty much all these stories outdoes the content no question.  Final story ‘The Girl Who Married a Monster’ (1954) does one thing very well, and provides again a brilliant picture of the context in which the people involved operate and live, but it’s not especially memorable and I’m not surprised that Boucher abandoned the character once this was done.

As historical documents, these therefore have a lot to offer.  Boucher does amazing work in making a man a burned-out alcoholic dissolving in self-hatred while also retaining a streak of decency and an ability to function brilliantly when required; these stories are worth reading purely for Noble alone, and I’m starting to get the impression that this is how I will classify Boucher’s writing myself: pinpoint-accurate, human characters full of foibles and grace and fears and doubts, put through the paces of stories filled with much more charm and superb writing than quality plotting.  And, y’know, people have done far worse, even if I can’t escape the feeling that Boucher himself deserves better.

Right, onwards to Sister Ursula…

~

I submit this post for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Cat.

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10 thoughts on “#152: The Nick Noble Stories of Anthony Boucher (1942-54)

  1. I think I’ve read most of these stories over the years … Boucher is so good that I don’t really mind the flaws but I agree with you, they’re there.
    I’m not sure who’s been telling you that Rocket to the Morgue was inane. Yes, the mystery aspect is not very good. But it’s a vicious and bitter roman-a-clef attack on the character of Adrian Conan Doyle from an insider’s point of view, and I love that Boucher is getting revenge for EQ and JDC’s troubles with the Doyle estate. Adrian must have been FURIOUS at this book, and that suits me fine! Also it’s delightful to see a pen portrait of the real Robert Heinlein before he started believing his own publicity and turned into a curmudgeonly self-parody. Boucher had a unique position as a mystery writer who had the entree into the innermost circles of science fiction and SF fandom at the time, and you just can’t find this stuff anywhere else. Hold your nose, ignore the mystery, and see if you can figure out who everyone is in real life 😉

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    • I’ll be honest, I completely missed the Conan Doyle aspect of it when I read it a few years back — it might warrant a re-look on those grounds alone — but the whole “parody of SF authors of the time” isn’t enough of a basis for me to justify the book. I wasn’t aware of this when I read it, and found out about it shortly afterwards, and had about a fifth of a second where I went “Huh, well that’s interesting…” but, really, the fact that one of them is meant to be L. Ron Hubbard and one’s supposed to be Heinlein, etc, doesn’t sell it for me because it’s not even purporting to be that kind of a book; it sets itself up as a mystery and should be a mystery first and foremost. And the mystery is weak sauce indeed, even though Sister Ursula becomes ever more wonderful as the book progresses.

      But, hey, maybe knowing what I now know will make it more palatable second time around. And, hey, at least I’m now considering a second time around, which is more than I could say for it this time last week… 😉

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      • I think Boucher was one of the few people who knew Heinlein and Hubbard and the whole lot of them who wasn’t afraid to talk about them truthfully; lots of SF writers and fans had various reasons to hold back on the truth for reasons connected with getting published. (And apparently the same holds true for Holmesian fandom and Boucher’s TCOT Baker Street Irregulars; I have no idea who Boucher was talking about, but it seems like he was talking about some real people.) Boucher had a unique position touching a whole lot of different writing circles of the time, and I’m ready to put up with a silly mystery plot just to see if I can tease out a little meaning from his observations of interesting writers whom he knew personally. The bits about Heinlein’s attitudes to women are really illuminating in understanding his later work, I think.
        And apparently the parts about Adrian Conan Doyle don’t go FAR enough. ACD made Christie’s grandson Matthew look positively altruistic. The thing about charging for recordings for the blind is apparently 100% true. Just … wow.

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        • Dammit, Noah, now you’ve got me wanting to reread it…how the frank hell did this happen?!

          And, yeah, that recordings for the blind story, if true, is…worryingly cold.

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    • Apologies, too, for the YOBoLRC confusion. I published the post by accident as I was preparing it for later in the week, and then had to delete it because I’m not ready to put YOBoLRC out yet. But people got emails and links and all manner of things say it’s up when it isn’t because I naffed up. Frankly, by accidentally clicking on the wrong button I’ve caused myself all manner of problems…bloody idiot that I am!

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    • Yeah, I’d say so. Of the Bouchers I’ve been able to read it does all the things it should the best, and prepares you for the flaws in the others like Crumpled Knave and Rocket to the Morgue.

      He rather like the girl with the ciurl in the middle of her forehead: when he’s good he’s very very good, but when he’s bad…

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  2. Another author I read and enjoyed a long time ago, although I only read the Fergus O’Breen novels and not the Sister Ursula ones, so I have new pleasures to sample. I remember enjoying The Baker Street Irregulars very much. I also want to laud Boucher’s work in radio. He wrote for the Sherlock Holmes program and its summer replacement Gregory Hood. Great mysteries, all of them!

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