The case of the curious critic.
Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By JON L. BREEN
The Anthony Boucher Chronicles
The Sound of Detection
AFTER PRODUCING seven detective novels between 1937 and 1942, Anthony Boucher quit writing books and started reviewing them.
For all that the creative spirit is superior to the critical, Boucher made the right choice. As a mystery writer, he was skilled but derivative, heavily influenced by Ellery Queen, G.K. Chesterton, and John Dickson Carr. As a critic, he was unique. It's possible to imagine twentieth-century crime fiction without Boucher's novels but not without his critical writings.
Born William Anthony Parker White in California, Boucher was a man of many talents and enthusiasms. As a science-fiction writer and editor, he helped raise the level of a genre too often associated with pulp juvenilia. He was a prolific broadcaster and writer on opera in the San Francisco Bay Area--besides being a lay leader in the Roman Catholic Church and active in local politics. After his last novel was published, he continued to write short stories, translated foreign detective fiction for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (including the first English-language appearance of Jorge Luis Borges), and co-wrote two of radio's best detective programs: the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series and the Ellery Queen program. (The full story of the Queen program and Boucher's contribution is explained in "The Sound of Detection," a recently published expansion and revision of a book that first appeared in 1983.)
When the United States entered World War II, Boucher, married with two sons and a chronic asthma sufferer, was not a candidate for military service. In 1942, he was hired to replace Edward D. Doyle, the San Francisco Chronicle's mystery critic, who had gone to war. In 1951, he began writing the "Criminals at Large" column for the New York Times book-review section, a post he would hold until his death in 1968 at the age of fifty-seven.
Much as he loved formal fair-play detection, Boucher as a critic was no rigid traditionalist. He appreciated a wide range of types and styles, from spy thriller to psychological study to police procedural to hardboiled private-eye tales. At a time when they were mostly ignored by critics, he regularly reviewed original paperback novels, the format that produced some of the best work of such writers as Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, Richard Matheson, and John D. MacDonald, who credited Boucher with erasing "that unfair and arbitrary demarcation which labeled a whole area of work inferior because of the authors' choice of subject matter. He drew the line between good and bad regardless of genre." Vin Packer, a remarkable novelist Boucher compared to John O'Hara and Nancy Mitford, stated she began writing crime fiction solely because of Boucher's willingness to cover paperbacks.
Boucher was an early advocate of numerous writers who subsequently gained wide recognition. Lawrence Treat's 1945 pioneering novel "V as in Victim" he praised as "in its unpretentious way an epoch-making book, marking a fresh new realistic approach to police procedure." As early as 1951, he was celebrating Ross Macdonald for "his vivid realization of locale," "his striking prose style, reminiscent of Chandler," "and above all . . . his strangely just attitude toward human beings." (It was his reference to Philip Marlowe's misanthropy in a review of "The Little Sister" that gained Boucher the misleading label of a detractor of Chandler, a writer for whom he nearly always had high praise.) When the first 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain appeared as paperback originals in 1956, he touted them as the best American contributions to the growing procedural school. In 1967, he praised a young writer named Donald Westlake for his "tough, hard-nosed" novels, "with an acute insight into criminal thinking and an enviable ability to shock legitimately," and his later "criminous farce-comedies, as warm and funny as his early books were cold and frightening."
BOUCHER'S solid grounding in general literature allowed him to raise the standards of the field he covered: While he scorned Mickey Spillane, he celebrated writers who brought greater skills to the same unpleasant subject matter. For all his exacting standards, he was a kind and measured critic and the writer's friend--often literally: Ross Macdonald credited Boucher with starting "my career as a private-detective story writer--a career which, like my wife's career, was sustained by Tony's friendship. It was his eye we wrote for, and his unfailingly human response that set the final period to each book."
Though not yet collected in book form, the New York Times columns are at least accessible on microfilm in most libraries. But his equally interesting reviews for the Chronicle were long unavailable, until their gathering in three new volumes, each introduced and annotated by Francis M. Nevins. Considering Boucher's importance to crime fiction, one would expect these lost works to find at least a university press or established reference-book publisher. Instead, we have three handsome but tiny dustjacketed paperbacks from a minor print-on-demand firm that specializes in the work of Harry Stephen Keeler, an eccentric mystery writer of the 1920s through 1940s who still has a small but enthusiastic following.
Boucher's Chronicle writings give an incidental picture of the concerns and preoccupations of the home front, specifically the effects of war on the book world. The first volume consists of chatty news-and-comment columns about crime and mystery fiction. The second reprints his capsule reviews of new titles, enjoyable reading even when they concern writers no one remembers. The third contains his reviews outside the mystery field--on rocketry, relativity, medieval drama, Shakespearean authorship, pyramidology, anti-Semitism, film criticism, ghost stories, stamp collecting, race relations, librarianship, theology, voice instruction, music, criminal psychology, and wartime cookery. One of his reviewing specialties was a genre peculiar to the time, the "Underground" novel. It was a sign of the times that the Chronicle editors thought enough of their readers to allow the multi-lingual Boucher to review books published in French or Spanish.
BUT WHAT ABOUT Boucher's truncated career as writer of detective fiction? He arguably had the potential to become one of its greatest American practitioners. Two questions are inevitable: Why did he stop, and what might he have accomplished had he continued? "The Case of the Seven of Calvary" (1937), Boucher's first novel, has many features common to the Golden Age of Detection between the world wars: a list of characters, footnotes, a timetable, murder-scene diagrams, a you-have-all-the-clues challenge to the reader, a final gathering of the suspects, and Boucher's most audacious refinement: a list, provided before the solution, of the key clues needed for the reader to solve the puzzle, including the page numbers on which they appear. The solution is based on an already venerable alibi gimmick and reader misdirection, but Boucher uses the familiar elements ingeniously.
"The Case of the Crumpled Knave" (1939) introduces the character Boucher would return to most frequently, private detective Fergus O'Breen, a soft-boiled sleuth in the Ellery Queen mode. The plot, drawing on Boucher's fascination with card games, has a fresher and cleverer puzzle than "Seven of Calvary," including a familiar feature of the Queen novels: the presentation of an ingenious and elaborate but false solution before the revelation of the real one.
Though Fergus doesn't appear in "The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars" (1940), his sister Maureen, a movie-studio publicist, is prominent. A tough-guy mystery writer, who has been wrongheadedly hired to adapt Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Speckled Band" for the screen, is murdered, with several scholars of Sherlock Holmes--acting as technical advisers for the film--as potential suspects and detectives. Numerous allusions to the Holmes canon and an espionage element appropriate to the period undergird another strong fair-play puzzle, including a question of who'll-solve-it as well as who-done-it.
FERGUS RETURNS in "The Case of the Solid Key" (1941), about the locked-room murder of a theatrical producer running a confidence scam on Hollywood hopefuls. Again, there is a Queenian double solution, including another fresh variation on an ancient device. "The Case of the Seven Sneezes" (1942) offers Boucher's most elaborate puzzle. In a situation similar to Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" (1940), the murders take place on an island among stranded guests. The novel has its annoyances and peculiarities: Fergus wards off the advances of a nymphomaniac by punching her in the jaw; the redhaired sleuth's inter-goddamn-polated oaths grow tiresome, and part of the plot (as Boucher ruefully admitted) is based on the Lusitania sailing in the wrong direction. Still, it remains an entertaining novel.
The two novels Boucher wrote as "H.H. Holmes," though better known than those under his own name, are inferior to his best work. "Nine Times Nine" (1940) and "Rocket to the Morgue" (1942) both involve cleverly conceived locked-room problems, in homage to John Dickson Carr, and both are solved by mystery fiction's first nun-detective, Sister Ursula. "Nine Times Nine"--which, like "Seven of Calvary," concerns a heretical sect--centers on a prominent Los Angeles Roman Catholic family, the Harrigans, one of whose members declares, "We've got too much money to be good and too much religion to be bad. We just hover." The second Sister Ursula novel, though fondly remembered for its portrait of the science-fiction community on the eve of World War II and its transparent lampoon of the obstructive Arthur Conan Doyle heirs, proves on rereading the least effective of Boucher's detective novels. Boucher much admired G.K. Chesterton's success in combining religion and detection, but he was unable to duplicate it. (Boucher would do better in science fiction: His story "The Quest for St. Aquin" is a classic about a robot who uses his reasoning powers to prove the existence of God.)
FOR ALL THEIR LACK of trailblazing, Boucher's detective novels make rewarding reading. His characters are not deep or vivid or memorable, but they are agreeable, intelligent, and articulate, and act in recognizably human ways. Their relations and the everyday things they talk about give Boucher's novels a surprising freshness and immediacy. The literate dialogue shows that Boucher could match Michael Innes, Dorothy L. Sayers, and S.S. Van Dine for erudition, but it is so lightly worn it never seems pretentious. Setting the stories firmly in period, rich in topical references, paradoxically makes them seem less dated than the work of some contemporaries who strove for timelessness. The romances come naturally to Boucher; the fight scenes and blows to the jaw, thankfully brief, seem more a nod to convention. (Boucher also toed the mystery novelist's party line on unconsciousness-inducing knocks on the head: not serious, quickly recovered from.)
His puzzles are ingeniously constructed and carefully executed enough that, among the classic American writers active in the 1930s, he ranks behind only Queen, Carr, and Helen McCloy, and ahead of such contemporaries as Clayton Rawson, August Derleth, Anthony Abbot, C. Daly King, Clyde B. Clason, Stuart Palmer, and (in every way but historical significance) Van Dine. (Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner stand apart from this group, because the elaborate mystery puzzle was not always central to their work.)
BOUCHER NEVER completely gave up writing fiction, producing many fantasy and science-fiction stories through the 1940s, as well as a series of armchair-detective puzzles for alcoholic ex-cop Nick Noble and a few short stories about Sister Ursula, but in his later years, even his short-story production would be curtailed in favor of critical and editorial duties.
Why did Boucher the detective novelist close up shop? The most important reason was surely economic. For his whole adult life, he was a freelance writer, reviewer, and editor, a family man with no mundane day job to fall back on. His constantly precarious health demanded he husband his energies. (The process his two sons had to go through to get him up in the morning and from his afternoon nap, as described by Nevins, sounds harrowing.) In the 1940s, hardcover mystery novels were much more prestigious than lucrative, on average bringing their authors "no more than five hundred dollars" according to Marie F. Rodell's 1943 manual "Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique." There was big money in slick-magazine serialization, but Boucher never cracked that market. Short stories had at least a chance of selling to the slicks; radio scripts conferred higher pay; review columns and magazine editing brought a steadier income.
What would Boucher have achieved had he continued writing mystery novels? As he had from the beginning, he would have followed the Ellery Queen example: increasingly ambitious exploration of character, theme, and milieu without deserting the puzzle element that gives the field its uniqueness. One reason he encouraged and sometimes almost managed Ross Macdonald's career must be that Macdonald took pains to create a fair-play plot, thus completing the merger of hardboiled and traditional detective fiction.
There are two keys to understanding Boucher's loyalty to classical detection. First, he had an affinity for pursuits with strongly established rules and conventions: sports, games, opera, risqué limericks, languages, science, and religion. Second, he loved fantasy. The influential magazine Boucher and J. Francis McComas founded in 1949 would eventually be called (as it still is) The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But it began life as The Magazine of Fantasy.
When they first conceived the project, they proposed to Frederic Dannay that it be called Ellery Queen's Fantasy Magazine. Dannay demurred, understandably contending that the public would be confused or misled to see the Queen name attached to another genre.
But (apart from the commercial hook) Boucher saw that classical detective fiction is really a branch of fantasy, outwardly realistic but in many ways as far from reality as Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Detective stories are set in an alternate universe--one in which the language, cultural and historical references, everyday motives and drives are the same as in ours, but in which murders come with a well-balanced group of suspects to choose from and are solved by sleuths from clues available to everyone but correctly interpreted only by them.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Boucher was a convivial man. For most of his life, he attended science-fiction fan conventions and regretted that no comparable events existed in the mystery field. In 1970, a group of fans remedied that lack with the first "Anthony Boucher Memorial Mystery Convention," or "Bouchercon." It has existed as an annual event ever since--this year's will be held next week in Austin, Texas.
At one of the early Bouchercons, editor Larry T. Shaw offered an interesting theory on why the kind-hearted Boucher quit writing detective stories, one that also suggests why he might never have been as successful at fiction as at criticism: He was too fond of his characters to keep putting them through the traumas and miseries crime fiction demands.
The winner of two Edgar awards, Jon L. Breen is the author of six mystery novels and writes the "Jury Box" column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.