Having worked my way through Anthony Boucher’s short stories featuring the alcoholic yet still razor-sharp ex-cop Nick Noble, I’m now onto the second section of his collected short stories, comprising those featuring crime-solving nun Sister Mary Ursula of the Order of Martha of Bethany from Boucher’s locked room novels Nine Times Nine (1940) and Rocket to the Morgue (1942).
In contrast to the nine Noble narratives, the Sister scores a span, so there will much less to say here unless inspiration strikes. Given that Noble never got a novel of his own and so was beautifully enriched in the stories he haunted, it’s interesting to note how differently Sister Ursula is treated, as she was already a known quantity to Boucher’s readers by the publication of the first of these.
And the first of these, ‘Coffin Corner’ (1943), concerns the two things most likely to make my eyes glaze over in GAD mysteries: American Football, and card games. The mythos surrounding any sort of sport is an invention on par with religiosity for me, so devoting large sections of this to the discussion of plays and kicks and scores of Silly Rugby didn’t bode well. Additionally, a gambler is found killed in his office with a cribbage layout in front of him — yes, the card game — in a setup so odd that you just know it has to be relevant…yup, it’s a dying message mystery. Interestingly, both these conceits simultaneously are and are not pertinent to understanding what’s going on: there’s a very good and subtle invoking of the clues in a fair way, which uses the sport and cards in a manner that I certainly didn’t appreciate in advance. It’s pretty slick stuff, actually, and shows Boucher’s talent for this sort of thing.
My only real complaint, then, is that there’s so little Sister Ursula in this. Mostly she listens to a story told by someone else, makes a couple of inferences based on the old Good Catholic Boy myth, and then ends things on a surprisingly (well, perhaps not that surprising) Chestertonian/Father Brown note. Not a terrible story, then, not even all that flawed if we’re being reasonable, but not the masterpiece I would have liked given that it’s a full 25% of the stories Boucher wrote with this wonderful character in.
Finally, we have ‘The Stripper’ (1945), the sobriquet given to a serial killer who commits their murders starkers, which gives us some wonderful writing…
The murders in themselves were enough to make a newspaper’s fortune. They were frequent, bloody, and pointless, since neither theft nor rape was attempted … This indiscriminate taste made better copy; the menace threatened not merely a certain class of unfortunates but every reader.
…compensating for a poor plot. Essentially, due to an oversight of cod-hysterical proportions, the killer is narrowed down to one of three members of a household, having killed the fourth when no-one else could have gained access. But the fourth had written a letter to Sister Ursula before his death, hinting (bloody obscurely, it must be said) at the killer’s identity.
It’s not quite a dying message mystery — the key revelation relies on, of all things, a universal truth being adhered to by everyone who does laundry (which is another Boucherian conceit, this invoking of universal esoterica) — but it’s not far off, and the message in particular is so catastrophically convoluted that the chance of anyone performing the mental gymnastics required is, kindly, Christian-Bale-in-The-Machinist-slim. But there’s no arguing that it does play into Sister Ursula’s strengths, and makes a sort of sense of her inclusion. The double-tap melancholy note on which this ends is almost enough to compensate, but this is very much the Rocket to the Morgue of these two stories.
So, how do the two sleuths compare?
Both carry that wounded sense of thwarted ambition that makes their involvement in these stories somehow more believable than would otherwise be the case. Noble’s downfall in no way means he has lost the fire for solving such puzzles — there’s a latter-day Holmesian aspect to him, given his soaking in cheap sherry between cases — and Sister Ursula’s intention to become a policewoman was scuppered by poor health. While the essential deduction made by the Sister in ‘Coffin Corner’ is based on something of a false (well, wobbly) premise, it has the same gentleness and inevitability as the way Noble unshowily fits his cases together: these aren’t your coruscating crusaders, they’re simply brilliantly perceptive people who see evil and head it off.
If anything, each could easily be substituted for the other in their respective stories and you wouldn’t really have to change the tone too much. Noble would make the essential leap I mention above, but he’d come at it from a different perspective; equally, Sister Ursula could see the scheme behind Noble’s cases. This may initially seem like a criticism, some sort of self-plagiary accusation, but I actually consider it to Boucher’s credit that he avoided too many Mary Sue-isms by having one character able to hold forth with unheeded confidence on obscure library cataloguing, Latin, ecumenical technicalities, and rocking-horse-excrement-rare classical music (sounds rather like Gervase Fen, doesn’t it — interesting to consider how much of a deliberate parody he is in comparison to these two).
Differences between them do exist, however. I very much get the impression that Noble is already so broken by the world that there’s no level of depravity or madness that can get anywhere near his sherry-fuelled shell, whereas Sister Ursula very much carries the scars of these encounters with her (that’s one of the best moments of the weaker stories, in fact); perhaps this is why Boucher didn’t write as much featuring the Nun Detective, because the sense of her as a character changing as a result of these encounters would either b a) too much strain on her, or b) too difficult for people to keep track of over a series of potentially spread out stories. I guess we will never know…
Either way, these are equally as good a microcosm for Boucher’s writing, showing off his intelligence, his awareness of all manner of obscure topics, and his ability to weave together a story that ties in elements many others would be unable to fit together so smoothly or write about so well. The third and final section of this book contains collected mysteries that I’m assuming have no common characters, so expect a review of that in about a year or so.