The Magazine

Boucher's Mystery

The case of the curious critic.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By JON L. BREEN
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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.