Three more non-series tales from Exeunt Murderers: The Best Mystery Stories of Anthony Boucher [ss] (1983).
First this week is ‘Code Zed’ (1944), in which a German agent carrying the vitally important eponymous code is apprehended by his British counterpart, whose job it is to intercept him before it gets into the wrong hands. With its “you’re carrying something and I’m gonna find it” staging, this has about it the same tough edge as ‘The Black Ledger’ (1952) by Ellery Queen — especially with the introduction of Colonel Jeffreys and the threat he represents — but Boucher has a greater economy of prose, and the resolution to this swift story feels like the sort of War Work stuff Anthony Berkeley was writing his local newspaper. It’s a good example of how you can be drawn into assumptions, but tough to get too excited about otherwise.
Equally barren in terms of ingenuity is ‘The Ghost with the Gun’, a.k.a. ‘Trick-or-Treat’ (1945), which sees a man on the run from unstated crimes in Chicago open the door to a child-sized figure trick or treating, dressed as a ghost, who then shoots him in the stomach before fleeing. Quite what the idea behind this was eludes me, because it’s not clever, contains practically no detection, hinges in no way at all on the sort of linguistic playfulness Boucher would insert into his little schemes, and ends up more disappointing than the setup (and even the title…!) promises.
What makes it is Boucher’s prose, which takes time to reflect on what our victim-to-be enjoys so much about the season:
“But damned if I don’t like Halloween. I remember when Joe and me was kids. We used to have us a time, all right. And sometimes I think maybe that’s what got me started—trick or treat. You walk up to some dope and you tell him ‘… or else!’ It’s all the same.”
…before introducing our gleefully dry narrator, the nameless police detective who is called to the shooting:
I brushed my teeth, shaved and fixed breakfast and wondered what it was like to be a private eye like you read about, and have whisky instead of coffee. I didn’t think it’d work, but you never know till you try.
It shows the marked optimism of the detection story of this era that if a man is shot then he’s shot by someone known to him who has a reason for doing it, but even inside that loose reasoning the method of reaching the answer is disappointing. Again, though, there’s the thread on which ‘Code Zed’ hangs — albeit in slightly different form — and it’s interesting to see this recur again so quickly in Boucher’s work. Maybe it was a preoccupation with him at the time, who knew?
“[H]aving Gregor Stolz for the weekend meant murder” our narrator tells us at the beginning of the next story. This is because Gregor Stolz is ‘The Catalyst’, a.k.a. ‘The Numbers Man’ (1945), whose involvement with various people before they went on to commit violent crimes has our Lieutenant thinking that the man is an especially lethal “prone”:
An accident prone is a guy who’s always around when industrial accidents happen—he doesn’t cause them, he doesn’t do anything, but if he’s in a plant the insurance company’s going to lose money. What sailors call a Jonah—same thing. And Gregor Stolz was a murder prone, a carrier, if you like that comparison better.
The most fun here is again in the prose, with Boucher clearly enjoying the opportunity to invent crimes which Stolz has hastened by his presence…
Young Martin at the University fed arsenic to his uncle only to learn that all Uncle’s money went to a foundation to prove that Queen Elizabeth wrote Shakespeare. He was furious on discovering the terms of the will, and kept saying that a friend named Gregor Stolz had assured him of his first-hand knowledge that he was Uncle’s heir. Martin was so mad about being fooled that he never even tried to play innocent. The trial was a formality, and Stolz never appeared as a witness.
Gregor Stolz had come to the Bay Region about six years ago. Since that time there had been seven murders and three suicides among the people he knew. For the most part, they didn’t know each other—he seemed to have many circles of friends. He got around. So did Typhoid Mary, I guess.
Technically this is a Dying Message story — “Over Seven-Down Ten … Fifteen-Ten.” — but that causes absolutely zero confusion and is worked out without any reason given why. I’ll hand it to Boucher that there’s one very subtle clue about the eventual interpretation put on events, but where last week’s ‘Mystery for Christmas’ (1943) did a superb job of working up the required situation so that it felt organic, here we’re just dumped into something that’s weird for no reason other than it’s the idea around which a basic misdirection is built for all of about three lines come the end. Plus, there’s a slight problem in the…numbers. It works, sure, but it also could very easily not have, and for a very good reason that I’m unable to go into here.
An unedifying week’s reading, it has to be said, and one that makes me consider the possibility that the “best mystery stories of Anthony Boucher” might be…actually not that great. His novels seem to provide more space for misdirection and enjoyment, and there’s no shame in excelling at the longer form — Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and many others were better writing novels than shorts, with the comparative list of short story specialists (Edmund Crispin, Clayton Rawson, er…) being rather thinner on the ground. What says you, internet reader?