The Case of the Seven of Calvary, by Anthony Boucher (1937)

The Case of the Seven of Calvary,  by Anthony Boucher (1937)

7calv1Author: Anthony Boucher was a very talented man who became well-known in a couple of different competencies. He was a mystery writer, of course, of both novels and short stories; he was also a popular writer of science-fiction novels and short stories. A huge annual conference for mystery fans and readers, Bouchercon, is named after him. In the 1940s, he was the principal writer not only on the Sherlock Holmes radio program but The Adventures of Ellery Queen and his own series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood. He was an esteemed editor of short-story collections, particularly of science-fiction short stories, and received a Hugo Award in 1957 and 1958 for editing Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. And perhaps in the foremost of these multiple occupations, he formed the opinions of generations of mystery readers by his power as the mystery reviewer for the New York Times.

In short, a fascinating, intelligent, and multi-talented man whose life and friendships were just as interesting as his multiple streams of work. I am happy to recommend you to a book called Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography, by Jeff Marks which as you may have gathered is a cross between a biography and a bibliography. I’ve gotten to know and like Jeff over the internet, where he shares his erudition freely, but you don’t have to take my friendly word for the book’s value; it won an Anthony Award for Best Critical Non-Fiction Work, and was a finalist for the Agatha. You can find a copy of the book here, and I think you will find it very interesting. It will also give you full bibliographic detail of Boucher’s many streams of work which, honestly, is a godsend to finally have assembled in one place. I’ll also happily refer you to my friend and fellow GAD blogger John Norris, who reviewed this book insightfully and with useful detail in his blog, Pretty Sinister, with the specific review found here. (And in fact I am indebted to him because I lifted his scan of Collier #AS97 to illustrate this review, since it was the only image available on the entire internet.)

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Anthony Boucher

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Simon and Schuster (1937). It has not often been reprinted. I suspect there might be a Japanese edition, but I don’t read kanji. The copy that I used for this review is my paperback from Collier, #AS97, published in 1961; this may actually be the latest edition as such, although the novel is collected as part of a four-book omnibus in trade paper format from Zomba in 1984, which to my knowledge is the only UK edition.

Collier #AS97, shown at the top of this review, is so far away from what’s currently fashionable in terms of book design that it has a kind of normcore beauty. Ah, for the days when the book’s title in large and poorly-kerned Helvetica Bold and a crummy, hard-to-see woodcut at the bottom right was sufficient to cause it to leap off the shelf and into the buyer’s hands. (If you see it at its original cover price of 95 cents, it should leap into your hands; it will probably cost you at least $20 at an antiquarian bookstore if the proprietor knows what she’s got.) I note with particular approval that the potential reader is tantalized by the blurb telling them that this is one of those books where “the reader is given clues to solve the mystery”. Considering that this book is most attractive to highly literate and experienced mystery readers, this seems rather like alerting people at the entrance to the Kentucky Derby that they are likely to see some horses. But 1961 was apparently a more solicitous time in the marketing of paperbacks.

This mystery has recently become available on Kindle from Amazon and I’m happy to see that it’s now available for reading by a wider audience.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

12309174502The framing device for this novel is that Martin Lamb, a graduate student at UC Berkley in San Francisco, is out at dinner with Anthony Boucher; Boucher is writing up the story that Lamb tells him over dinner. This gets a tiny bit confusing because most of what happens in the book is that Lamb sits and tells things to a different listener in a different armchair, but eventually it becomes easier to pick out where we are. Lamb sits and tells the story of recent on-campus events to his advisor, Dr. Ashwin, an eccentric professor of Sanskrit. Lamb goes into great detail about the events of a recent evening among a group of international students on campus, while Dr. Ashwin listens from his armchair, a glass of scotch in his hand. The evening ends with the stabbing death of an elderly and apparently inoffensive Swiss humanitarian and quasi-diplomat as he is out for a stroll, and a scrap of paper is found nearby that contains what we learn is the symbol of an obscure religious sect, the Seven of Calvary. (There’s an illustration below.)

I think you’ll enjoy the way the events of this novel unfold, so I’m not going to go into an enormous amount of detail in case you haven’t yet read them;  I’ll give you the bare bones to whet your appetite. Martin Lamb is falling in love with a beautiful Hispanic fellow student, Mona Morales, and thus becomes a kind of bemused spectator at the string of events. The late Dr. Schaedel has a nephew in the graduate school, Kurt Ross, and he and a number of other young men have spent the evening drinking and talking. (This book has quite a bit of drinking and talking in it.) And many of these young men (including one Alex Bruce) have an interest in the beautiful young Cynthia Wood, at whose house Dr. Schaedel, she says, asked for directions moments before his murder.

Everyone thinks that the mysterious illustration of the Seven of Calvary means that some sort of religious fanatic is responsible for the murder of Dr. Schaedel, and while there are a number of people with strong religious beliefs, including Cynthia, whose wealthy father recently embraced a strict form of Christianity, none appears to be a fanatic attached to an obscure European sect. Paul Lennox, one of the young men who spent the evening of Dr. Schaedel’s death drinking and talking, goes on for a chapter about the history and background of Gnosticism, and Vignardism, and the history of the Seven of Calvary in the Swiss Alps and their belief in the septenity of their god.

Meanwhile, the police, whose efforts to solve the mystery are almost entirely invisible in this book that focuses upon armchair detective methods, appear to be getting nowhere; most of the principal characters find themselves involved in a university-based production of Don Juan Returns. Martin Lamb plays the murderer and Paul Lennox plays Don Juan, his victim. But during the first-night performance, something is wrong with Lennox’s performance as he is strangled on stage; he actually does die.

12663737861_4Lamb finds himself in over his head in the murder case and turns to Dr. Ashwin’s insight (and never-empty bottle of Scotch) to establish his innocence. Ashwin deciphers the mysteries from the comfort of his armchair. He gathers the group together in his rooms and explains that he had only had three remaining questions before solving the case. The first was answered by an express parcel from the head librarian at the University of Chicago that very afternoon; the second was answered that day by a discovery of Martin Lamb in a novelty and theatrical shop near the campus; and he asks the third on the spot. When he receives a surprising answer to this surprising question, he has everything he needs to solve the case, and explains everything.  In the course of his explanation, he reveals that he had started with seven questions to be answered (and had whittled them down to four before the session began. This further instance of the Seven-ness of the case gives him a way to explain everything that happened, and in great detail, just by answering those seven questions. It’s completely clear who did what and to whom, and why. At this point, Dr. Ashwin explains that there is actually an eighth question; that of the Seven of Calvary. He explains exactly where that idea entered the case and why, and there is nothing further to reveal (except a few paragraphs of “where are they now” as the framing story, wherein Martin Lamb is telling the story to Anthony Boucher, is tied off.)

Why is this book worth your time?

As I mentioned above, Anthony Boucher is of the premier rank of mystery critics and editors; he understands how mysteries are constructed and written. He only wrote a handful of novels and every single one of them is worth your time. If you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery, you will find something to amuse and/or challenge you in every one of his novels — guaranteed.

This particular book is in fact his first published mystery novel. With many writers’ careers, it very often happens that their first novel is a kind of false start; they manage to sell a book which is their foot in the publishing door, and then after a while find their voice and begin to write the books for which they become known. Is this one of those?

7ofcalvWell, yes and no. Certainly this book is very clever and very original, and obviously written by someone with both a great knowledge of and a great love for murder mysteries. At the second paragraph, the Anthony Boucher character starts to lecture about the nature of a “Watson” to Martin Lamb, who actually plays the Watson role throughout most of this book, and the self-referential nature of having the author be a character adds a kind of bizarre Wonderland quality. Really, given that the author is a character and considering the nested “story within a story” conceit that is framed within the prologue and epilogue, this might almost pass for an early attempt at a kind of self-referential post-modernism. Just like Scream was a slasher movie about people who have seen a lot of slasher movies, this book is a mystery for people who have read a lot of mysteries. The first pages of my copy are a cast of characters with asterisks thoughtfully inserted against the names whom Boucher wishes us to know are possibly guilty; minor characters and spear-carriers are ruled out.

This is also a mystery for people who have read a lot of everything else. Only a very few authors in the mystery genre have this enticing quality, where the action frequently stops dead in its tracks for a two-page lecture on ancient Swiss religious beliefs, Sanskrit tongue-twisters, or the origins of the Don Juan mythos. (At one point Boucher inserts an asterisk to a footnote that says, in my paraphrase, “If this doesn’t interest you, skip two pages ahead; you won’t miss anything relevant to the murder.” Saucy, but useful.) I can only think of John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson as sharing this quality whereby they spray nuggets of information, relevant or irrelevant, through the pages of a mystery. (Yes, others do it too, but more sparingly; these guys are the big three.) Speaking as a reader, I find it charming and diverting but I know that some people find this kind of information dump annoying in the extreme.

The actual mystery element is a strong and predominant part of the novel’s plot, which is why I’ve been, for me, relatively uncommunicative about its details. There are only a few suspects and while it is not terribly difficult to assign responsibility for the murders, it is considerably more difficult to figure out howdunit. John Norris, in his review referred to above, makes the point that there are a couple of easy deductions available at the beginning of the mystery that may well make the incautious reader think they’re about to beat one of the great puzzle constructors, but, at about the midpoint of the book, there’s a revelation that completely recontextualizes everything that’s happened thus far and throws all those earlier deductions up in the air. (And again, I’m indebted to him for saying it first.) In other words, the author has been a couple of steps ahead of the reader the whole time and has led you down the proverbial garden path; in a way, this is a kind of Ellery Queenian “false solution then the true”. The ending, with everyone gathered for the “blow-off”, is certainly a Golden Age trope but the manner in which it’s conducted, with the kindly old professor listing off the seven crucial points and following with the unexpected eighth, is pure John Dickson Carr/Dr. Fell.

And that’s my only small quibble with this great book; it borrows here and there. One of the central puzzles is strongly suggestive of an earlier novel by S.S. Van Dine; there are elements reminiscent of Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout. Another small problem is that the premise of having Dr. Ashwin sit in his armchair and have stories brought to him (the Rex Stout aspect) means that there has to be a way to introduce action into the plot or it descends, as it does here, into long chapters of storytelling by someone who isn’t guaranteed to be a reliable narrator. I note that this is the one and only adventure of Dr. Ashwin; Boucher’s subsequent creation of brash California PI Fergus O’Breen is much more suited to tell interesting stories. Let me be clear, though, this is more a meta-problem; there’s nothing at all wrong with the way that this book is constructed and written. The characterization is sufficient to the needs of the plot, the settings are obviously something of which Boucher had personal knowledge, and the language is elegant and erudite.

Really, there is a huge amount here to enjoy, especially if you like to experience an author’s growth by reading his work chronologically. If you like an unexpected spate of learning about — well, about something you didn’t know that seems interesting — then Boucher is one of a very small group of authors with a style of sufficient authority that they can just shut the plot down for a moment’s lesson, or a joke, or even a little puzzle that pays off in a later chapter. It’s a fun and charming style and it takes a great deal of obscure knowledge to bring it off. It’s not impossible to solve this mystery upon first reading, but I suggest that even an aficionado of the puzzle mystery will find it difficult. I enjoyed this book a lot and it’s part of the oeuvre of an important mystery writer and critic; I urge you to read it.

807072190Notes for the Collector:

As I’ve noted above, the first edition is from Simon and Schuster, 1937; first UK is as part of an omnibus volume published by Zomba in 1984, and first paper is from Collier, 1961. There’s an ugly Macmillan edition as part of their Cock Robin imprint, some sort of “bringing back the oldies” line from 1954 (the primarily blue cover earlier in this review). A facsimile of the jacket of the first edition is $18 and it’s the cheapest Boucher-related item in AbeBooks.

If I were going to get a reading copy, I’d be after a crisp Fine copy of Collier #AS97 for $20 to $30 or the Kindle edition; if I had just won the lottery, I’d be investing $600 to $800 in one of the three — three! — signed first editions on sale today. They may not be the prettiest editions — the $600 one has a facsimile jacket and none is what I’d call crisp — but, gee, the thought of having a copy that my favourite mystery critic of all time had held and signed, well, that would be worth every penny.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1937 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “G”, “Read one academic mystery.” Very nearly every single character in this novel is either a student or a professor and the action takes place on the UC Berkley campus. I’d originally meant to read this as “a book with a number in the title”, but I have a couple of those in mind and close at hand. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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6 thoughts on “The Case of the Seven of Calvary, by Anthony Boucher (1937)

  1. I’ve got the Black Box edition and have read this, but I must admit, I can’t remember all that much about it so have postponed the pleasure of reading your review in depth Noah until then!

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I have been more than usually reticent about the details of this book; I tend to add spoiler warnings but in this case it’s barely necessary. I thought readers will enjoy this book more if I gave them only enough to get an idea of the kind of book it is … I think you’re fairly safe if you want to give my review a shot!

  2. prettysinister says:

    Thanks for the links and compliments, Noah. This is probably my favorite of all of Boucher’s books. So impressive for a first book. NINE TIMES NINE is a runner-up for the honor of best but its preposterous solution is too much to be believed for me even in the context of a detective novel. I like to be fooled and …SEVEN OF CALVARY surely did that without resorting to ridiculousness. I liked your Scream analogy, BTW. If I were ever to write a mystery novel it would be just like that — a meta-mystery in which the characters are very hip to detective novel tropes yet still fall victim to them.

  3. Noah Stewart says:

    I agree; very impressive for a first book, a very polished and finished work. It’s had a couple of weeks to “settle” for me now and I think what stands out for me with a bit of distance is how deliberate and measured it is, which is the effect of the framing devices. This is not a book by someone who is concerned that the reader should be dazzled, but instead wants to provide a more intellectually rich experience. So rare these days.
    I’m not sure which I’d pick as my favourite Boucher novel; perhaps CRUMPLED KNAVE or 9X9 deserve that honour, but I very much enjoy the roman a clef and so perhaps ROCKET TO THE MORGUE would be my personal favourite.

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