Several years ago, discovering that the impossible crime novel was a thing, I read Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine (1940), originally published as by H.H. Holmes, and loved it. I then discovered TomCat’s list of favourite impossible crime novels and was intrigued by the fact that, eschewing the accepted classic that Nine Times Nine is, Boucher’s later, less discussed The Case of the Solid Key (1941) was included there instead (TC, it must be said, is something of an iconoclast…). More Boucher followed, some of it disappointing, and last year I finally ran to ground a copy of TCotSK in a secondhand bookshop in Philadelphia and — at long, long last — here we go.
TomCat and I are enjoying a rich vein of agreement at present, so here’s a stick in the spokes of that: selecting a novel for its locked room trick, I’d still go for Nine Times Nine over this. The murder of theatre producer Rupert Carruthers in a workshop with the eponymous key very much on the inside of the locked door lacks the gallant showmanship of the vanishing of the yellow robed figure from Wolfe Harrigan’s study with every entrance locked or observed. The trick in that earlier book is, in many ways, ridiculous, but there’s a part of me that wants the impossible crime to push the limits of invention — give me a difficult-to-countenance whirligig in the manner of The Invisible Circle (1996, tr. 2014) by Paul Halter over the sober realism of Murder in Black and White (1931) by Evelyn Elder any day. Additionally, the impossible element of this one feels a little redundant, given that Fergus O’Breen looks at the setup and immediately decides it’s murder; in fact, remove that locked door and I’d argue it would be a better puzzle.
But, as a novel ut totum, The Case of the Solid Key is probably superior — and I only say ‘probably’ because my recall of anything I read more than three weeks ago will inevitably be flawed, as readers of this blog can attest. The cast of low-level actors, theatre managers, writers, and other flotsam has about it a lovely air of verisimilitude, and I felt far more engaged in their various problems than I remember feeling with NTN — indeed, I was so swept up in the lives of these people that (and, heaven forgive me, I may never live this down) I didn’t even consider the final chapter reveal that it seems everyone agrees is blindingly obvious. So caught up was I in the moments of the petty unfairness they suffered at the hands of Carruthers, and at the various background mysteries Boucher layers in with effortless aplomb, that I was just enjoying being here among them. For someone who seems to be constantly up against yet another deadline to read and review another novel or short story for his all-consuming blog, do you have any idea how wonderful it is to just enjoy something?
The only false note in the whole enterprise is private investigator O’Breen himself, a detective so untouched by anything resembling characteristics that he barely registers despite being in 90% of the scenes. Carruthers’ weary but not unkind dismissal that “a young writer here in Hollywood is as sure to have won a one-act play contest back home as a girl is to have been Miss Wacketonka Falls”, Norman Harker’s lament that love is difficult to come by because “women don’t even drop handkerchiefs any more; and if you try and honest direct approach they call a policeman”, even Eric Moser’s “brilliant and half-sinister smile with a great deal of upper-case Charm and very little lower case” all contain more character than O’Breen who has red hair, wears yellow shirts, and…uh. From the ungrammatical Betsy and the seductive but shallow appeal of Carol Dayton (who “is rich, and the noun rhymes with the adjective”), to the quiet insistence of stage manager Mark Andrews and his co-operative dream and the yo-yo-ing mental (and physical) condition of Fran Owen, there’s so much about these people as people that the O’Breen Void stands out rather too starkly for me.
Boucher’s prose is a delight throughout, too, evincing the sort of restraint that M.G. Eberhart was lacking last week, with Harker’s growing affection for the improbably named Sarah Plunk being the root of a fair amount of angst in the latter half without ever overpowering the narrative simply because Boucher phrases his terms well and trusts you to remember them. He has the lightness of touch this genre needs, and it allows him to get away with some startling coincidences and an important piece of not-really-joining-up two essential parts of the plot that you ignore because of the fun you’re having. It also has the best dedication I’ve yet encountered:
For Mother, who is still trying to like mystery novels.