The case of the curious critic.
Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By JON L. BREEN
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.