#247: The Sister Ursula Stories of Anthony Boucher (1943-45)

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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.

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Wanted: Cake, already eaten.

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).

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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.

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16 thoughts on “#247: The Sister Ursula Stories of Anthony Boucher (1943-45)

  1. JJ, in your earlier article on Boucher, specifically on Nick Noble, you ask what Boucher will be remembered for in terms of his mystery writing. While I’m no Boucher expert, I’ll have to add his scripts for Sherlock Holmes, Gregory Hood, and (usually uncredited) Ellery Queen to the mix here. I really think they compromise his best mystery writing–perhaps the constraints of the radio format actually helped him?

    I remember there being a somewhat decent clue in “The Stripper,” but I can’t for the life of me remember what it is, so it can’t be all that good. I do remember enjoying the story on the whole, as odd as it is. I can’t remember anything about “Coffin Corner”–I guess that tells you everything about that. In terms of the Noble stories, I’m a particular fan of “The Girl who Married a Monster,” which re-uses some ideas from Boucher’s SH radio play “The Book of Tobit” in a cleverer manner. Also in that story’s favor–how well it disguises the Christie’s old Peril at End House gambit (actually better than AC did in a few of her later books), so much so that I was surprised by said gambit for the first time since reading Christie’s book.

    I’m a great fan of Nine Times Nine as well, though I must admit to being one of those people who haven’t picked up Rocket to the Morgue because of its reputation! 🙂

    Karl

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    • Noah got me curious about Rocket to the Morgue again — I read it in those dark pre-blogging days — by telling me it was essentially a bitchy roman a clef about the writing of the new Sherlock Holmes stories by Adrian Conan Doyle (among others, since there are also lots of SF authors there who are supposed to be L. Ron Hubbard and others…not that it really makes any difference if you do or don’t spot this). Still, the locked room trick is frustrating, and compounded by having a character go “Yeah, that author Anthony Boucher can vouch for the validity of this…”. It’s a book I’d struggle to recommend, all the same.

      I know nothing about Boucher’s various scripting jobs, perhaps I should look into that once these stories are done. So many people produced such great radio scripts in this era that I’ve no doubt there are some unheralded joys about these parts. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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      • Of course.

        I believe Francis Nevins has recounted some of the tales of fraught tensions among Frederic Dannay, Manny Lee, and Boucher during the EQ radio show’s days, but I’ve never been able to find a copy of The Sound of Detection, unfortunately, and all I know about it is from Internet links (http://www.otrr.org/FILES/Articles/Martin_Grams_Jr_Articles/Adventures_Of_Ellery_Queen.htm) and forewords/introductions that Nevins has written. (Would one of you do me a huge favor and remind me to write a blog post on the EQ program one of these days?) It greatly disappoints me that only a few of the EQ episodes are available nowadays (http://www.greatdetectives.net/detectives/big-list-shows/ellery-queen/).

        As for the radio plays that Boucher wrote credited, I’ve always been a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes program–more so in the Basil Rathbone years, of course, but also in the Tom Conway years. (For sheer plotting cleverness–not my prime criterion here, but still notable–the Conway years may actually beat the Rathbone years, just because, with Rathbone, there were more straightforward adaptations of the original Holmes stories.)

        Some of the plays are so obvious that the listener thinks that the writer has another twist up his sleeve (SPOILER: he doesn’t)–“The Book of Tobit,” while one of the most fun, is the biggest offender here–but some of them, like “The Notorious Canary Trainer” and “The Terrifying Cats,” are almost too clever for the confines of a radio show!

        I don’t think Gregory Hood is half as good as Sherlock Holmes (neither plots nor players are half as good), but there are some good stories here and there. “Gregory Hood, Suspect” was somewhat clever, I remember (I think that’s the impossible crime one), as was “The Forgetful Murderer.” Less for the killer’s identity, I hasten to add, than for the circumstances surrounding the crimes. “The Beeswax Candle” didn’t have all that great of a puzzle plot, but the storytelling was good.

        Apologies for going on too long, but I hope that provides you with a good segue into the Boucher’s radio work.

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        • I, too, am a huge fan of Boucher’s radio work. Karl, the Tom Conway stories may or may not be more clever, but there was something a trifle flat to me about his Holmes portrayal, and it was clear that Nigel Bruce missed his old acting comrade.

          I DO own The Sound of Detection, and it was reprinted fairly recently, so I’m surprised that you can’t find a copy. It’s a marvelous resource with synopses of every episode. In short, it makes me feel even WORSE that there are so few episodes of EQ available. I think I like Gregory Hood more than you. They were working so hard to make Holmes’ summer replacement feel different, and as a San Franciscan, I really appreciated the setting.

          It’s good to run into another old radio mystery fan! JJ, none of these could match the complexity of a novel given their length and the medium, but they are charming and some, including those by Carr, are genuinely mystifying.

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        • I’ve enjoyed those radio episodes I tracked down on the OTR website I’ve mentioned here before, so I’m aware of the quality that exists there. It would be lovely if there was a way to make that sort of thing even more available, rather than falling to a few dedicated nerds to carry the torch 🙂 But I guess interested people will find it ether way.

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        • Oh, Brad, I too far prefer the Rathbone episodes myself. Rathbone and Bruce really make the show—them, of course, and Petri Wine! 😉

          I just thought there were a few clever Conway episodes, so I was highlighting them too, based solely on plot (which is, as mentioned, not my sole or even primary criterion here). Sometimes I feel they’re underrated—though that’s very explainable, because Rathbone and Bruce are just so good together!

          I like Gregory Hood just fine, and, while I’m on the other coast, I do appreciate the Frisco setting too. It didn’t strike me as all that memorable, but it’s not bad at all.

          I will be on the hunt for Nevins’s book and will probably have to break down and buy it online; I’d been looking for a library copy.

          Nice to find another OTR fan too!

          Karl

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        • I laughed out loud the first time I heard the announcer sign over a brimming glassful of Petri Sauterne . . . or suggested that if you weren’t sure whether you liked your sherry dry or “you know, sweet? Don’t buy one, buy two. Yes, don’t buy one, buy two.” Dr. Watson always thought these modern methods of advertising were rather cheeky! I asked my mom about Petri, and she dismissed it as a step above cooking wine.

          Have you ever gotten into Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (the multiple episode stories, not the singles) or Broadway Is My Beat?

          Liked by 1 person

        • We always mock it as “buy one, two, three, four, five–buy the whole store-full! Just buy Petri!” Actually, those ridiculous ads are quite endearing after listening to a million episodes. And, when I did a recording of Carr’s Holmes spoof radio script (“The Adventure of the Conk-Singleton Papers,” I think), I had to include a fake advertisement, as I imitated Harry Bartel and announced, “P-E-T-R-I–the proudest name in the history of American wine!”

          I haven’t heard many of Broadway is My Beat, but I’m a huge Johnny Dollar fan. We listen to “The Nick Shurn Affair” every Christmas on Sirius’s Radio Classics. One of my great memories is listening to it while on the way up to Lake Placid, New York, in the middle of a snowstorm. Very adventurous and exciting.

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        • This is amazing, thank-you so much for bringing this to my attention! I shall peruse it at leisure and possibly raise it on here at a future date.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ, there are some short stories featuring Boucher’s main detective, Fergus O’Breen, but I think most of them are featured in the companion volume to “Exeunt Murderers”, namely “The Compleat Boucher”, which collects all short stories by Boucher that aren’t in this one.

    However, most of the stories in that volume are SF stories (though the ones with O’Breen also have mystery elements), so caveat lector.

    There might be one or two O’Breen stories in “Exeunt Murderers” as well, but I don’t have the volume handy at the moment so I can’t check.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, superb. I imagine the Breen ones aren’t in Exeunt Murderers, as they’d likely get their own section as these mere two do. I’ll see how bothered I am about tracking them down when I finish these, but do you think they’re worth the effort/expense?

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  3. I don’t really remember most of them, so that might say something. 🙂

    I know there is one that features O’Breens descendant a long way in the future, Fers Brin, and that was anthologised in a Swedish anthology, so I’d hazard a guess that that one’s probably good… *feeling vague*

    If you enjoy SF, then I’d recommend “The Compleat Boucher”, because he was a pretty good SF writer. It contains his possibly most renowned story, “The Quest for St. Aquin”. The collection does have some criminous content as well, it’s just that it’s SF mysteries in those cases.

    As for the rest of the stories in “Exeunt” I’d at least recommend “The Anomaly of the Empty Man”, because I remember that as an interesting impossible crime.

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  4. Having now checked, it seems all O’Breen stories (5 of them) are in “The Compleat Boucher”.

    As is “The Anomaly of the Empty Man”, so obviously there’s not just a small handful of mystery related stories in that volume. Sorry for misremembering.

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