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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The Anthony Boucher Chronicles
Reviews and Commentary 1942-1947
edited by Francis M. Nevins
Ramble House, 3 volumes, $21.95 each

The Sound of Detection
Ellery Queen's Adventures in Radio
by Francis M. Nevins and Martin Grams Jr.
OTR, 267 pp., $29.95

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."