William Anthony Parker White, under the nom de plume Anthony Boucher, is widely considered to have been one of the most influential voices of his generation when it came to matters of detective fiction. As an anthologist and reviewer his opinions counted greatly for their insight and fairness, but as well as talking the talk he also walked the walk in a series of seven novels and over 70 short stories published in the most highly-regarded detective and SF magazines of the day.
And yet for all his output, and in part on account of his genre-changing, it’s difficult to know how Boucher’s fictional writing should be remembered. His novels cover no fewer than three different “series”, with the longest-running — centred around Irish PI/Gentleman Detective Fergus O’Breen — comprising only three of them, and the most famous — locked room murder Nine Times Nine (1940) — featuring the marvellous wannabe-detective nun Sister Ursula but succeeded by a follow-up (1942’s Rocket to the Morgue) so inane that most people have probably never picked it up based on reputation alone (which is a shame, because Sister Ursula is one of the most wonderful characters to come out of this era).
Looking then to Boucher’s short stories, I discover the character of Nick Noble, subject of nine stories which have been collected along with several others (including two featuring Sister Ursula!) in Exeunt Murderers: The Best Mystery Stories of Anthony Boucher, edited by Francis M. Nevins, Jr and Martin H. Greenberg. Noble, a genius detective in the Nero Wolfe mold, is an ex-cop with a mind like a trap who is able to puzzle out the links in the most confounding of cases brought to him. And the cases must be brought to him as, since being kicked out of the Force following some political maneuvering by a savvy higher-up, he is to be found in a cheap Mexican bar slowly drinking himself to death with water glasses full of cheap sherry.
Now, wait, I know: cliché ahoy, right? He’s an alcoholic ex-cop wrongly kicked off the Force but he’s still got it, and the cases brought to him have a gradually vulnerary effect as he shows the supposed “real” police how it should be done, etc, etc, snore. But, honestly, Boucher is such a fine observer of character that it’s almost contrary to his DNA to write something that basic. Noble is possibly the most heartbreaking central character I’ve yet encountered — though “central” may be pushing it a little, since he usually inly shows up once the crime is established as baffling and the detectives come running to him — and Boucher gives you someone who is cracked beyond repair and yet still has enough about him for some light to shine through while skipping nimbly over the tropes into which a lesser author would be unavoidably wrenched.
One or two aspects of repetition — unavoidable since these stories were published over a period of 12 years, but much more obvious when read close together — do come close to dull trope territory: Noble swiping at the imaginary fly that keeps landing on his nose, the fact that he’s always found in the third booth on the left (except in one story where Boucher seems to forget this and he’s found in the fourth…), the oft-repeated story of his downfall, the references to his eyes glazing over as he makes the connections that have eluded everyone else, but these are really more evanescent in nature once the brilliance of the character shines through. His wonderful staccato way of talking (“Interested? Oh yes. Pretty problem. Pattern. Thanks, Herman. Proof tomorrow.”) takes some getting used to, but makes the incision of his insight somehow all the more believable — there’s rarely a wasted ounce of fat in anything he says, be it in unpicking a case or in the terrible moments when you realise just how broken this man is.
The actor stared at him for a long time and said at last, almost with awe, “What are you?”
Nick Noble brushed the invisible fly from his nose. “Thirsty,” he said, fondling the empty sherry glass.