As I’ve commented here, I’m not reading very many actual physical murder mystery books these days. Indeed, many of the ones that have passed through my hands recently were *not* read for pleasure but skimmed for ideas and/or to analyze where they went wrong. So I will not be treating you all to a scathing review of the work of, say, Leslie Meier. For one thing, it wouldn’t really be all that scathing. Ms. Meier writes simple cozies and I am emphatically not her target audience, so why should I take offense at being treated like a dummy if that’s what her readership — which I take to be considerable — actually wants from her? I was merely curious about how she manages to sell what she manages to sell, and how well she writes, and so on. So I picked up three of them at a garage sale and skimmed them to see the voice she was using, and the underlying structure, and the opening lines, and how she handled the introduction of characters, etc. Possibly it will be considered scathing to say that she is a “competent” writer. But I think it’s just a case of what an old queen of my acquaintance used to call NOSD — “not our sort, dear”. If you like her work, feel free to keep liking it. I will continue to avoid it, but not for any vituperative reason, merely that it’s not to my taste.
But a friend recently returned to me a copy of The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) by Anthony Boucher, and THAT was worth re-reading for pleasure. Yes, I’d given him the edition whose cover you see here — I love Dell mapbacks. (Look them up in Wikipedia if you’re not aware of them.) Boucher’s mysteries are relatively scarce in paperback and one or two of them are darn near impossible to find, notably The Case of the Seven of Calvary. But they are decidedly worth tracking down if you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery.
Mr. Boucher was many, many things in the writing field and good at all of them. He was a superb reviewer of mysteries, he wrote them himself, he was also a science-fiction writer of note, and a great anthologist. He was also responsible for an enormous body of work writing radio scripts and you can probably find the Sherlock Holmes radio programmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as MP3s, freely available, if you go searching for them.
His mysteries are fascinating examples of the puzzle mystery and one or two of them are even locked room mysteries, or “impossible crime” mysteries. (Again, if you’re not up on this sub-genre, I recommend Wikipedia.) This particular novel takes place on a tiny island and, in the classic pattern, all entry to and exit from the island is controlled in such a way that the suspects are limited to only the people on the island at the time — no extraneous characters can possibly be responsible or even accomplices. Someone was killing cats and people at a wedding reception 25 years ago and seems to be repeating the pattern in the present day (which is in the 1940s, as I recall without having the book at hand).
I admit that this sort of book held much, much more delight for me in the past than it does these days. As a younger reader, I found myself able to overlook certain mawkish elements like cardboard-y characters and silly plot twists — at one point in this particular novel, a man escapes certain death by stabbing because his heart is on the wrong side of his body, which is a little too much like a cheap radio script for my tastes — in favour of the sheer inventiveness and creativity that Boucher brought to his work, and large quantities of cutting-edge daring. To the modern reader, some of the inventiveness and creativity may go unnoticed and the daring may be overlooked. For instance, in TCOSS, there is a character (Alyx) who is, essentially, what used to be called a “nymphomaniac” (in present-day terms, a sex addict). It’s she who is depicted on the cover, threatening to cry rape and tearing her stocking to add verisimilitude. Well, that you can see on daytime TV these days. But in the 1940s, OMG, that was shocking. Dangerously close to unpublishable. People just did not talk about sex in mysteries of the 1940s in such an open way. They also didn’t speak of these things in terms of psychological syndromes. In this novel, Boucher actually lays the groundwork for the realization of the reader that not only is the nymphomanaical Alyx a sex addict, but she is that way for reasons connected with traumatic events in her past. Again, that seems simple to the modern reader, but that was not the type of conclusion that people were encouraged to draw in the 1940s. Think of Carmen Sternwood, for instance. It was only at the level of Raymond Chandler’s writing that this sort of sexual pathology was acceptable. In the pulps, I think the best explanation for the lack of that kind of verisimilitude is that (a) there was a kind of self-censorship to stay within the obscenity laws of the time, and (b) I suspect there was a common understanding among pulp writers that the audience just wouldn’t get it.
But I digress. One of the reasons that I enjoy Boucher’s work so much is that he has, simply put, a great sense of humour. It’s not especially evident in this specific novel, but it permeates his work like an undercurrent. His detective, Fergus O’Breen, is not especially realistic, but constantly lulls the reader into a sense of mild amusement with his brash comments and general approach.
The main reason, though, is the thought that went into the plotting. Obviously it would be terrible to reveal whodunit, for instance, and I have no intention of doing that here. But Boucher’s level of intricate plotting is equaled by very, very few writers — people like Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Hake Talbot. The amount of thought that goes into constructing such a plot is monumental. I can’t say you will never figure this one out, because I actually did (but based on a principle that is unfair to this great writer, since it’s more based on my knowledge of the way mysteries work than anything else).
Incidentally, the “marooned on the island” theme is of course common to the country-house mystery genre of this period; if I were teaching this novel, I’d suggest that students would “compare and contrast” this to, say, Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery and/or The Spanish Cape Mystery, or Hake Talbot’s The Hangman’s Handyman. Especially now that I’m not one of the few people in the world who’s read that last one, since Ramble House has re-published it. Or, of course, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. You can find examples of the closed circle throughout this sub-genre, but this one of Boucher’s is especially well-done. Sometimes OTT, but a good, solid, enjoyable read that will probably surprise you at the end.