#554: The Case of the Solid Key (1941) by Anthony Boucher

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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.

TCot Solid Key KindleBoucher’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.

So, yes, away from the locked room trick I can absolutely see why TomCat would pick this one. Boucher’s wise enough a head where the genre is concerned that you’re never entirely sure if he’s going to lean into the tropes or is using them against you, and the double-reveal at the end is gloriously wrought from that uncertainty (I, it must be said, walked right into the trap he laid for me).  Had I read this one first, who knows — maybe I’d love it, and consider the more scheme-focussed work of Nine Times Nine inferior.  Either way, it’s a very enjoyable time, and one I highly recommend if you’re able to find a copy.

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See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: I may give points to The Case of the Solid Key in terms of the solution.  There is such an obviousness to it after the fact – one of those things you could have never thought of beforehand, but after sitting and thinking about it for 30 seconds, you’re like “wow, that’s just brilliant.”  Don’t let me oversell you on this, but if you’re a fan of locked room mysteries, I have to think that you walk away from this one at the very least satisfied.

John @ Pretty Sinister: I liked this thoroughly American mystery novel. I’ve been reading far too many Brits with far too many plots about someone who makes the fatal mistake of announcing he is changing his will in front of all his heirs. It was a refreshing change to have a story about acting and the movie business, scenes set in coffee shops and bars, jokes about comic books and Lifebuoy soap, and a rambunctious detective swearing up a storm…

Noah @ Noah’s Archives: There are a number of things wrong with the plot, most of which I can’t go into in depth because I will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely say that a handful of the characters are not easily distinguished one from the other because they’re rather bland; the central premise of the locked room isn’t all that gripping or indeed necessary to the plot; and if there is anyone who doesn’t figure out the “surprise” behind the Jackson/La Marr subplot before the book is half over, well, they should go back to Young Adult reading.

25 thoughts on “#554: The Case of the Solid Key (1941) by Anthony Boucher

  1. You nailed this one – it’s all about the read. I really think The Case of the Solid Key reads a bit better than Nine Times Nine, and I couldn’t help but get enveloped by the story. I’m personally more of a fan of a British mystery than a US set one, but I think this is what Ellery Queen was going for with the LA-set second era books like The Four of Hearts. There are these little nuggets of phrase that Boucher is able to turn that sometimes transcend Carr.

    That you get a clever little solution is the bonus on it all. Yeah, it’s not as audacious as Nine Time Nine, but it provides that forehead slapping moment that you might experience in the likes of It Walks By Night.

    I read this soon after Nine Times Nine and was on a Boucher high. The Case of the Seven Sneezes absolutely killed that. You want a taste of who Fergus O’Breen is? Read that book.

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    • I have a memory of there being slightly more to O’Breen in The Case of the Crumpled Knave, but…me and my memory, so treat that with the disdain it deserves 😆

      As for this, it’s a lovely plot, very well-worked. It’s also one of those impossible crime novels that would benefit from the removal of the impossibility, but my expectations are also to blame in that regard.

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  2. So, yes, away from the locked room trick I can absolutely see why TomCat would pick this one.

    Well, I picked The Case of the Solid Key for all the reasons you highlighted, characters, writing and most of the plot, which makes it one of Boucher’s better and most elegant mystery novels. However, the admittedly minor locked room-trick deserves some praise. Yes, the trick is basically a slight variation on a very old trick, but the reason why the handle had to be solid was a clever touch.

    Usually, when a mystery writer employs one of those old, rickety routine solutions, like pieces of string or tweezers, they’re admitting they have no idea how to explain their locked room or lack the interest to rework an old trick – by tweaking or fine tuning them. There are exceptions and The Case of the Solid Key is one of them.

    TC, it must be said, is something of an iconoclast…

    You have to correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you start out your previous blog-post with these lines:

    It’s undeniable that I have a slightly unusual relationship with some accepted classic GAD authors and do not necessarily always line up with the accepted wisdom where, say, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, Ellery Queen, and Dorothy L. Sayers are concerned.

    I just preferred one Boucher novel over another, while you (regularly) rebel against some of the most popular GAD writers and stories, but I’m the iconoclast? Compared to you, I’m an unrepentant traditionalist. 🙂

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    • I read Rocket to the Morgue unaware of the roman a clef Boucher was giving me and so possibly missed some of it’s charm, but I’m so glad that I knew of his standing in the mystery community when reading this one. The way he brings in certain tropes is much more playful than I might otherwise have realised, and I could have dismissed them as rickety as you suggest. I wonder if that’s part of what resulted in this being overlooked: NTN is obviously working hard to do something audacious, whereas in a certain worldview this could appear a little trope-leaden and so minor by result. Perhaps perspective on it has been lost as Boucher’s name has meant less and less with successive generations.

      Compared to you, I’m an unrepentant traditionalist.

      Ha, yeah, okay, fair point 🙂 I look forward to upending more expectations in the weeks ahead…

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      • I have to think that part of the reason why Nine Times Nine gets more attention than The Case of the Solid Key is because of the Locked Room Lecture bit. Any fan of impossible crimes is going to eat that up.

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        • *slaps forehead* Of course! Man, I’m such a moron sometimes.

          Though it’s also interesting that this wasn’t republished as part of The Murder Room when they did the rest of Boucher’s novels on Kindle (sans, I think Baker Street Irregulars, too)…but, as we know, that might also be a rights thing…

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          • It leads to the question – if you take the Locked Room Lecture part out of Nine Times Nine, would The Case of the Solid Key be the book held up as Boucher’s best mystery? I do think the story was better.

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            • Excellent question.

              NTN is still the better locked room mystery, but the diversity of the cast and the situations folded into the plot compel TCotSK as just a general mystery novel. Which then brings up the matter of how one can judge something in a subgenre against its genre — two impossible crime books, one’s a better impossible crime and the other’s a better example of their genus…that seems confusing 🙂

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            • It might not be that uncommon though. I consider Till Death Do Us Part to be one of Carr’s greatest mysteries, but I think we can easily rattle off a list better impossible crimes that he wrote.

              Speaking of audacious solutions – if you like The Invisible Circle or the solution to Nine Times Nine, then Night at the Mocking Widow may be right up your alley. As much as I hated the book, the solution is so off the wall clever.

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  3. What’s hilariously ironic to me is that I gravitated to Boucher because he reminded me of Queen, and now here you are having a jolly old time with him! It has been so long that I’ve forgotten everything, so I MUST re-read Boucher . . . after I’ve gotten deep into Patrick Quentin, finished my Carter Dickson Celebration, re-read the Carr’s I’ve forgotten, and single-handedly reintroduced the world to Leonard Gribble. So it’ll have to wait till next year.

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    • In fairness, Queen were writing significantly earlier than Boucher and so his work is almost an exegesis on theirs — they played with the tropes before they were tropes, and then Boucher came in later to pick apart so much of what tropes had done in support of the detective story: made it hackneyed, yes, but also upped the self-awareness of the undertaking of a text detective investigation.

      I’m not exactly super-deep into Boucher or Queen, but there seems in Nick Noble, Sister Ursula, and Fergus O’Breen more of a deliberate examination of what’s been before, whereas Queen were involved in a semi-Croftian exploration of what was possible to do at the time, and where those possibilities lead. Maybe I just enjoy looking backwards more than I do looking forwards.

      Though I’ve enjoyed Crofts’ early work, and prefer Berkeley’s early work…so possibly not, eh?

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      • I came up with three hilarious zingers in response, but seriously, I get what you mean. Boucher was a student of writers like Queen rather than an original. His work here and on radio kept the Golden Age going a while longer than it might have.

        I will say that Queen never stopped experimenting. It was a big part of the tension of their dynamic: just what each of the cousins wanted to accomplish. Christie and Carr May have stayed pretty much the same, but Queen reinvented himself over and over.

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        • …which is part of why I persist with EQ, because I honestly respect the fact that it would have been easy to punch out a bunch of pastiches in the idiom that was popular — much like was done with Holmes imitators — rather than work at what was possible within the confines of the mystery novel. Everyone who went to serious efforts to examine and stretch what the genre did (and I count Christie and Carr in this, incidentally) deserves a fair shot at appreciation of their work. | With Queen it’s possible to write off a pahse or an era on account of a few books, but then five years later they’d reinvent themselves — or produce a fascinating transitional work like Halfway House — and suddenly all bets were off.

          One of these days, I promise, this apparent beating my head against a wall with ‘Ellery Qieen’ graffiti’d across it will make sense to those of you watching the blood running down my face and asking — not unreasonably — what I’m getting out of this. You just have to wait while I play a long game…

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  4. Thanks for the review. It’s hard to find reasonably priced copies of this one, and for some reason the Kindle edition isn’t available in my Amazon store. 😔 Ah well.

    I’ve only read one novel by Boucher to date – “Case of the Seven Sneezes” – which I quite enjoyed. Slightly far-fetched at points, but still an enjoyable tale.

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    • It took me, as I said, a while to find a sensibly-priced copy, so there’s obviously something about the rights or the prints runs or something that’s up (though, in fairness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Boucher novel in a secondhand shop…); its unavailability on Kindle is the baffling thing to me. However, if you can find it, do grab it.

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  5. I was surprised to read in Jeff Marks’ Boucher biography that Boucher’s agent and publishers really didn’t like this book–they only published it after he did a lot of rewriting at their request. This is my favorite of his books…I’m not sure whether it’s so great because he put extra effort into it, or (as is so often the case) the publishers were terrible judges of quality.

    We seem to be the only two people in the world who were surprised by that final chapter reveal (I assume you’re talking about the other thing, not the solution of the murder?).

    Have you read THE CASE OF THE SEVEN SNEEZES, the final chapter of the O’Breen Saga? Ben may disagree, but I think it’s terrific.

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    • I am indeed talking about “the other thing” — maybe if I was looking for it, maybe I would have seen it coming. But I wasn’t looking ahead, I was just very much enjoying the moment I was spending in this company. Noah can troll be from beyond the grave all he likes, I make no apologies 🙂

      I didn’t realise this had been so extensively reworked — and it begs the question of what the original version was…wow, what a fascinating prospect. Someone get Toy Medawar on the job of tracking down the original manuscript, the people need to know! In the case of Christie and Crofts’ debuts I can well believe that reworking resulted in improvement, but with someone who knew the genre as fully as Boucher you have to think that he knew what he was doing and so it must’ve been glorious.

      But then, I suppose he did write Rocket to the Morgue…so maybe it wasn’t so glorious after all 😆

      I’ve not read Seven Sneezes, no. I have read Crumpled Knave, and I remember enjoying it — and O’Breen being more distinctly realised — but very little in terms of detail. While I feel no urgecy to rush onto more O’Breen at this juncture, I can well believe that I’ll get to TCot7S before doomsday, and so shall cast the deciding vote at that time. Do not watch this space…

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      • No idea whether the SOLID KEY manuscript is still around, but reportedly there were at least three Boucher novels which were rejected by his publishers and at least one of them is extant. That book, THE CASE OF THE TOAD IN THE HOLE, sounds fascinating; it’s about a series of crimes committed with the same methods as famous (real-life) murders of the past. Last I heard, someone (I forget whether it was Jeff or Tony) was trying to finally get it printed.

        It’s a shame that ROCKET TO THE MORGUE is the only Boucher book which is famous outside of the hardcore GAD fandom (thanks to all of the thinly-disguised sci-fi people). Talk about a terrible locked-room solution!

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        • As more and more obscure, rumoured, possibly-not-believed, and never-suspected manuscripts like this come to light, I become ever more hopeful that someone will stumble over Hake Talbot’s The Case of the Half-Witness. I don’t even care if it’s terrible, I just want to read it…!

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    • I believe so, yes — it’s the second cover I featured in this review, which is why I included it; alas, not available in the UK, but I’m sure that will change post-Brexit…

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