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.
The character of Noble is so important to these stories for two reasons. The first is that none of the other characters really register — perhaps an inevitability given the standalone nature of these stories, as most of those who do feature will be victims, guilty parties, context, or suspects, and so are unlikely to come up again. Most frequently featured of the police is Detective Donald MacDonald, and he’s little more than a reader-insert who occasionally gets to find someone attractive or be a bit befuddled or easily misdirected. MacDonald is perfectly serviceable in this role, there’s nothing unlikable or unpleasant about him, but beyond the odd moment of reflection or a dash of confusion he’s barely characterised at all. So Noble has to be the one to shoulder these tales and make them appealing, make them something you want to return to and give them a sense of consistency, and Boucher achieves this with relative effortlessness.
The second reason for Noble’s importance in selling these is that, if we’re being honest, as stories of detection they aren’t really all that good. A couple of them are diverting enough, and the core ideas in ‘Rumor, Inc.’ (1944) and ‘Crime Must Have a Stop’ (1950) are exploited well, but the nature of the majority of the solutions is wholly unsatisfying. ‘The Punt and the Pass’ (1946) presents American football with the type of mythological significance that most of its fans would claim it has, but take the same notion and apply it to any other sport — to cricket, say — and the central premise of the solution is absolutely laughable. And it could be apply to cricket, too — there’s nothing particularly American football about the deductions, it just happens to be set in a milieu featuring that game.
The crime in the first Noble story, ‘Screwball Division’ (1942) doesn’t even really make sense. I mean, motive-wise it just about hangs together, but in terms of the thing that makes it so baffling and requires recourse to Noble in the first place…there’s just no point to it, and once unravelled it doesn’t really provide any new perspective on anything. That could almost be made the entire purpose of the story, but one suspects that Boucher missed this opportunity in the mix of everything else he was trying to establish in this new universe (and I don’t blame him for that). ‘QL 696. C9’ and ‘Death of a Patriarch’ (both 1943) are the kind of technically fair-play story that I really struggle to enjoy: the sort that requires some astonishingly specialist knowledge going in that, yes, is technically in the public domain but can’t really be introduced in the context required because it would give everything away. Thus, you just wait for Noble’s astoundingly wide grasp and recall to cough up the right answer and you go “Oh, so it was that, then.”
‘Like Count Palmieri’ (1946) is a moderately clever idea, but contains a moment of character revelation for Noble that is one of the most astonishingly desolating things I think I’ve read, and that overshadows the plot such as it is. I mean, there’s some fascinating esoterica about rare music, and a very nice piece of subtle clewing (if you feel like being a little generous…), but the context Boucher provides in pretty much all these stories outdoes the content no question. Final story ‘The Girl Who Married a Monster’ (1954) does one thing very well, and provides again a brilliant picture of the context in which the people involved operate and live, but it’s not especially memorable and I’m not surprised that Boucher abandoned the character once this was done.
As historical documents, these therefore have a lot to offer. Boucher does amazing work in making a man a burned-out alcoholic dissolving in self-hatred while also retaining a streak of decency and an ability to function brilliantly when required; these stories are worth reading purely for Noble alone, and I’m starting to get the impression that this is how I will classify Boucher’s writing myself: pinpoint-accurate, human characters full of foibles and grace and fears and doubts, put through the paces of stories filled with much more charm and superb writing than quality plotting. And, y’know, people have done far worse, even if I can’t escape the feeling that Boucher himself deserves better.