#770: The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) by Anthony Boucher

Baker Street Irregulars

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God, I needed this. Not that my reading has been hard work of late — I’m keeping within fairly safe ground, the last year having taking its toll on my…everything — but this is the first book I’ve read in a while that has been so damn fun. Remember fun? We used to have it all the time. For 90% of The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) I was swept up in the sheer joy of the ornate, ridiculous planning that goes into a puzzle mystery, in wave after wave of wildly unpredictable developments, and in the excitement of celebrating the voracious fandom the mystery genre excites. For the other 10%…well, we shall get to that in due course.

Producer F.X. Weinberg is about to shoot a movie of the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ (1892), and finds himself beseiged by letters from Sherlockian uber-fans the Baker Street Irregulars who object to the somewhat hardboiled Stephen Worth having been hired to write a script that is due to be less than faithful to Doyle’s creation. Thus, with Worth sheltering behind an iron-clad contract, and facing financial ruin on account of the influence this group holds — the only part of this that rang especially false to me, but hey-ho — Weinberg agrees to Maureen O’Breen’s plan that they invite the Irregulars to consult on the movie as it is being made, giving them “complete advisory authority…to guarantee authenticity and fidelity”. The Irregulars are welcomed to Hollywood to meet the press at their lodgings of 221B, er, Romualdo Drive…and that might be the last thing that goes according to plan.

What unfolds from here is a quickfire, warmly hilarious series of capers that retain both a sharp edge to their wit (“Maureen, explaining to the caterer that he had sadly understimated the liquor supply — this was a press reception — broke off and hurried to the door”) and a creeping edge of unease amidst all the buffoonery: the Irregulars each have a shade of tragedy in their lives, from Drew Furness’ Aunt Belle and the nameless, faceless persecutors that betoken her slackeing grip on reality to Otto Federhut’s casual marvelling at the freedom he no longer enjoys in his native Austria thanks to the spreading influence of the Nazi regime (“…in this land one may write what one pleases in a letter and have no fear as to who may read it”). The darkness might not always sit well against the tomfoolery, but one is never forced into undue deference to the other. A sense of unreality persists, but very real concerns are still to be found.

No one could feel the actual tragedy of death in a world where people drew dancing men for murder threats and sent dried oranges seeds by special messenger.

Sherlockian references abound — you sould have a coverage of at least the first two collections to get the most out of this — both in the escapades on which the Irregulars find themselves taken and in the schoolboyish delight they take in trying the sleuthing skills they claim to have learned from The Master. Fun is had with the structure of narrative — at about the halfway point things break out into a series of semi-Sherlockian short stories told by each of the Irregulars — the conventions of so many Holmes pastiches (c.f. Mrs. Hudson, hired to take care of 221B, insisting she is no mere housekeeper but “a bachelor of science in domestic economics”), and worplay on wordplay (magazine editor Harrison Ridgly requesting a thesaurus to better list his disbelief at one development was wonderful). The plot spirals, things become almost too ridiculous, and I didn’t care one bit. I learned a new word (autochthonous); I was in heaven.

Away from the Irregulars, Boucher is also clearly having a ball. Maureen emerges from the shower to answer a ringing telephone to in following manner:

Towel-draped and dripping (this is, regretfully, not the sort of book that will describe her futher) she picked up the receiver.

Lieutenant Jackson, present at the launch for reasons known only to himself, toys with the idea of pretending to be his actor brother and start telling scandalous stories that “would have trebled the circulation of the fan magazine” willing to print them, the police search a crime scene in a flophouse hotel “with the result that it was accidentally cleaner than it had been in years”. Hell, I’m even willing to believe that what I’d usually assume are typos in chapter 19 — references to to “Welsh rabbit” and “Worcester source” — are jokes that I’m too obtuse to get. The only real disappointment is that, having been promised Lieutenant Finch’s tendency to lapse into obscure slang, the best exposulation comes from Captain Norris (“Jesus Christ with wheels on!”). Was there a plot tying all this together? Probably, but with Boucher’s previous form to go on it might turn out to be a turbid mess — better to enjoy the fun while it lasted.

And, yes, then it turns out there there should be some design behind the entertainment and, well, it’s not like Boucher has a great track record of tying up his plots. The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939), The Case of the Solid Key (1941), and Rocket to the Morgue (1942) all stumble in imposing design upon their events, and this is no different: sure, the answer makes sense, but the meta elements get dropped to allow it and, in many ways, it’s the easiest choice and the least interesting culprit who ends up guilty. A megillah such as this deserves a triumphant cacophony of the bizarre to furnish its peak, but what shuffles out is rather slipshod and underwhelming; not anodyne, not even especially safe, just…there. It happens, things end, you close the book. It’s a fitting analogy to the Holmes canon — fun at first, then delightful, then somehow maintaining a standard that should be unreachable, before petering out and the less said about the end the better — but I have a feeling not even Boucher had that in mind when writing this.

For sheer rip-snorting delight at the peculiarities of the mystery genre — an appropriate reflection considering this review goes up on World Book Day 2021 — The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars takes some beating. We all want the chance to play detective, and Boucher tunes that violin to perfection while effortlessly showing up the peril of such an undertaking in the head-spinning rounds of false solutions before the rot sets in. Most love letters are written with more ardency than skill, however, and for me this comes up short when the puzzle plot should be at it’s most certain. It’s to be hoped that these excellent American Mystery Classics editions, doing such great work bringing back some magnificent books, extend to Boucher’s own masterpiece Nine Times Nine (1940) and the man on the street can see how well he applied himself when writing with a slightly — slightly — straighter face.

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See also

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: [U]nfortunately I think Boucher loses control of his plot, which is unusual for him, given how tight he usually works. It is perhaps an investigation which sinks beneath the allusions to Holmes. A permanent suspension of disbelief is certainly required. This could have been coped with or not even bothersome if the pacing didn’t rapidly go downhill. Boucher’s decision to include a series of chapters where each Irregular gives “a narrative” is an interesting idea but unfortunately it made the story become increasingly dull and hard to read, as these Irregulars are long winded to say the least. The plot’s energy dissipates at his point and struggles to restore itself afterwards.

Ben @ The Green Capsule: The stories all tie back in together and we find ourselves back in reality with a murder to solve.  Time for the denouement… I think…  Man, there are so many false solutions to this one.  Like almost too many.  Boucher lets them fly like a magician whipping handkerchiefs from a hat.  It gets confusing at a point because you keep thinking you’re being given the final solution and then it’s like “wait, was that it or are we still going?

21 thoughts on “#770: The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) by Anthony Boucher

  1. It’s on the “to read” pile. One I have been looking forward to but I guess I’ve been holding back, suspecting that the plethora of SH references will be somewhat compulsive. Hence I think i’ve mentally labelled it “holiday read” (or whatever that equates to currently!). Your review has whetted my appetite considerably. Looks like it’s going to be (slightly messy) fun.

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    • Oh, it’s an absolute mess — but in the best possible way 🙂

      It’s odd, too, to reflect on just how much pre-reading is (technically) necessary for this: Holmes references abound, with only really ‘Thor Bridge’ (and, by extension, The Greene Murder Case by S.S. van Dine) being spoiled — and while one could mostly read it and let the references fly over your head, it’s fun trying to spot them before they’re pointed out.

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  2. This really is a perfect book for these less than perfect times. I remember reading this a couple of years ago with unadulterated glee. Had I known what all was coming, I might have saved it for later (or, more likely, I’d have just bought a lot more books). I definitely agree that the solution isn’t quite worthy of all that came before it, but ultimately, the book is so altogether hilarious that I don’t mind. On reflection, I think I’d place it near the top of the list of my favorite comic mysteries. I think the best bit was when, after spending most of the book wondering which of our detectives would be the one to solve the murder, we finally reach the summation and see the joke that Boucher had been leading up to almost from the beginning. I sure cracked up when I read it. I do wish that the ending utilized more of the earlier elements of the story, but I’d still happily read a dozen more like it.

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    • It’s a spectacular comic mystery, I agree — I wonder if elements of pastiche apply themselves well to the comedy mystery, given how this sits in glorious company with the likes of Case for Three Detectives and, er, some others those names escape me at present 😄

      And, yes, that revelation about the myster’s solution is wonderful fun for how much it’s been thrown at you — I was scratching my head wondering what the Sherlockian connection to Amy Gray was. Well, Boucher sure showed me!

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      • I had completely forgotten about that clue! I was just thinking of ubj vg’f Ftg. Jngfba jub hygvzngryl fbyirf gur pnfr, but your example is way better!

        (Also, Welsh rabbit isn’t just an American usage. Fowler’s Modern English Usage has the entry “Welsh rabbit, not rare bit” listed under true and false etymology. Personally, I generally follow Fowler unless I specifically disagree with him, and this is definitely a case where I disagree, but both forms were first attested in the early to middle 1700s.)

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  3. Shame about the ending JJ. Perhaps he was just rushed. Given that the Holmes canon is spread over 5 decades and Doyle was pretty elderly by the end, I don’t think it’s quite fair to use that as an analogy for Boucher fleeing the scene of the solution after a few weeks of toil 😁 But if you want a daft analogy example, I once contributed to a book on British film directors and on Guy Ritchir I originally wrote of his film with Madonna that it showed he was “all mouth and no trousers”. I thought it was funny but my editor was not having it. So Boucher went from head to toe but stumbled only when he came to lacing up the shoes maybe? Not sure my analogies are getting any more successful 😆

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  4. I haven’t lacked fun reading for some time now, thanks to all the bloggers and writers I’ve discovered recently, most of whom are part of the community of mystery readers and writers. If you can’t find an author who leads you to feel real participation in the story or fascination with the times and settings which you find yourself most sympathetic to, let me suggest Colin Watson, Jason Goodwin, Edmund Crispin and Arthur Upfield. Sometimes, finding your particular idiom is the matter to resolve. For the longest time I had no idea about how to define my own interests, and then I found that it wasn’t necessary to do that. Be adventurous, look around. Asking the right question helps. You will find what you seek. Look at this site, in particular. It’s filled with terrific and helpful leads about what to check out. Pray do. The author of this site deserves a very lot of thanks for all the work and discriminating help provided to us readers.

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    • For the longest time I had no idea about how to define my own interests, and then I found that it wasn’t necessary to do that

      As has been detailed elsewhere on this blog, it took me a very long time to come to the crime genre and, from there, to the Golden Age. And, yes, you’re absolutely right, the best way to figure out one’s tastes and simply see what sticks. I won’t begrudge the teenage years I spent poring through pretty much any book I could get my hands on, because it means I weeded out a lot f stuff that I now know is of no interest to me. I’m not 40 yet, theoretically I have years to keep reading in the genre, so the time spent getting here was definitely well spent.

      I’m delighted that you’ve gotten so much out of the blogs you read, and that your own reading has been so positive. The books I’ve read, and the discussion on here and elsewhere, have been a huge part in me emerging from the last 12 months with most of my sanity intact. If I’m able to pass even a little of that on someone else, I’m delighted.

      Continued happy reading to you!

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  5. The Welsh Rabbit thing is probably not a typo – that was the more common spelling many moons ago. Worcestershire source though I have no defense for (unless he is referring to a police source in Worcestershire but you’d think that would be evident from the text).
    This does sound fun. I had sort of glossed over it assuming from the title alone that we were more directly in the SH universe (I am trying my best to work through that canon again before starting to write about extended universe or pastiche works) so I am happy to realize that was a complete misapprehension on my own part. On the TBR pile this goes which means you’ll probably see my thoughts on this in about 10 years!

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    • Working through the canon isn’t a bad idea — just generally, as well as in advance of reading this book. Indeed, with a more up-to-date appreciation of Holmes you may get even more from it.

      I look forward to your thoughts in 2031…!

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  6. Roughly a year ago we had a discussion about the difference between a novel featuring a great mystery, and a great novel featuring a mystery. The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars is a stellar example of the latter. I enjoyed it to death, and I’m so glad that you did too. When I reviewed this, I recall seeing that quite a few people didn’t actually enjoy the book, which is baffling.

    This is a book that I just got lost in. So many times I was just swept up in these side stories and completely forgot about anything to do with the main murder arc. The sea captain’s tale has to be one of the strangest things put to paper, especially the way that it just comes up out of nowhere, and I remember several pages in thinking “wait, what book am I reading?” And then, nearly a year later I was scratching my head trying to remember what book I’d read that featured that scene.

    “Welsh Rabbit” is a semi-common name in the US for tea shops, cheese shops, or anything vaguely UK-related. It was actually an epiphany for me a decade ago that this was a reference to a dish. I assumed that “Worcestershire source” was a clever play on words that somewhat mocks how someone might pronounce “sauce”.

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    • The way Boucher tears up the expectations of structure with those short stories is a total joy — they veer into the wildest places, and I had a grin on my face the whole time.

      If “Worcester source” is a play on pronunciation, then “Welsh rabbit” should be to — it’s clearly meant to be some sort of cheese-based something-or-other. Dammit, Boucher, give us footnotes telling us what’s jokes next time! 🙂

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  7. The clearest argument about the “Welsh Rabbit/Welsh Rarebit” issue is this: with an egg on top, it becomes a “Buck Rabbit”, That makes sense, but “Buck Rarebit” doesn’t.

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