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.
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?