#920: Little Fictions – ‘Threnody’ (1936), ‘Design for Dying’ (1941), and ‘Mystery for Christmas’ (1943) by Anthony Boucher

Having previously written about the Nick Noble stories and Sister Ursula stories by Anthony Boucher collected in Exeunt Murderers [ss] (1983), I turn my attention for Tuesdays this month to the remaining, non-series works in that volume.

‘Threnody’, a.k.a. ‘Death Can be Beautiful’ (1938) sees unpublished poet Laurence Winton learn of the murder of his friend Al Hanford at the hands of Mexican bandits and, in his grief, write the eponymous poem in memoriam. An overnight success, which happens to be “a comforting panacea for all American sorrows”, suddenly Winton finds himself approached for the movie rights — Boucher has fun with the facile nature of Hollywood here — and lauded by an equally uncomprehending literati:

The Journal of English and Germanic Philology published a carefully annotated essay on “Lawrence Winton’s ‘Threnody’: a comparative study in the influences of Milton, Shelley, Arnold, and Jorge de Manrique.” Manrique, whom Winton had never read, was an easy winner.

Boucher’s introduction makes it clear that this was his first crime story, and the eventual direction it takes won’t exactly knock your socks off, but it’s lovely to see the lightness that would mark out his prose so evident from this early stage in his crime-writing career.

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Lamenting the problems involved in committing the perfect murder, novelist John Bennington little realises that he is colluding with his audience — the author’s amanuensis, Ronald Markham — in the planning and commission of the murder of Bennington himself. So runs ‘Design for Dying’ (1941), which makes us aware of Markham’s plan from the opening lines:

It is particularly easy to kill a man when he plots his own murder for you. This is especially true if his mind is superior to your own (which is incidentally one of your motives for murder) and you can feel assured that the plot has no flaws.

As with all stories of this type, where we watch a killer commit a perfect crime before summoning the police, the chief focus is whether the blighter will get away with it — c.f. ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ (1954) by Roald Dahl, ‘The Orderly World or Mr. Appleby’ (1950) by Stanley Ellin — and I like how Boucher presages the end surprise here with a sort of…pre-surprise of the same ilk. Clever writing, that, to sail so close to the wind and then turn back, only for…well, that would be telling. Read it for yourself and find out.

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I don’t really understand the need for the framing of ‘Mystery for Christmas’ (1943), unless it’s Boucher choosing to pile in on movie studios again, as he did above and in The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940). When elderly scriptwriter Mr. Quilter loses patience with his most recent young collaborator, he storms out of the studio and is almost run over by Officer Tom Smith. Smith, it seems, has literary aspirations and, impressed by Quilter’s job at the studio, reads him a story in the hope that a satisfying ending may be found.

Except, the story is a recital of the facts of a stolen necklace Smith attended in person and has been unable to solve…so a police officer attended a crime scene, was present in the interviews, and then went home and wrote it out as he remembered it happening…and is now reading it to a scriptwriter he happened to hit in his car? Do I have that right? That’s…weird. The approach taken in the likes of James Yaffe’s Mom stories — frustrated sleuth telling the story to an outsider, who then happens to spot the key clue or giveaway — seems much more natural, and left me wondering, even come the end, why Boucher opted for this structure.

The solution relies on one of those bizarre linguistic turn-ups that enable some clever reversal when something is pidgin’d into English, and Boucher deserves credit for painting the scene that enables the mistake to occur so that it doesn’t seem as out of place as it otherwise might. It seems unlikely anyone will anticipate it, but then clewing wasn’t high on Boucher’s list of priorities. This is fun, and I like the idea behind it, even if the framing is going to perplex me for years to come.

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Well, this is nice — a short, sharp blast of a post for a change, rather than me maundering on for thousands of word. See you next week for the next three stories in the collection.

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