#923: Little Fictions – ‘Code Zed’ (1944), ‘The Ghost with the Gun’ (1945), and ‘The Catalyst’ (1945) by Anthony Boucher

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.

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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?

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“[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 TenFifteen-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.

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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?

13 thoughts on “#923: Little Fictions – ‘Code Zed’ (1944), ‘The Ghost with the Gun’ (1945), and ‘The Catalyst’ (1945) by Anthony Boucher

  1. I always assumed that rather than these necessarily being “the best mystery stories of Anthony Boucher”, that these were “the only readily available mystery stories of Anthony Boucher”. I recall hearing there are maybe two mystery stories in The Complete Werewolf , I believe featuring Fergus O’Brean. Beyond that there are the somewhat recently released radio plays in the Gregory Hood collection, although I always think of radio plays as being somewhat different. Did Boucher write any mystery short stories beyond that? Well, the answer is apparently yes, as Tony Medawar showed us in the upcoming Bodies from the Library collection. I’m curious though as to how much else there is.

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    • Hold on! Are you referring to the 2009 Crippen & Landru book as the “somewhat recently released” Gregory Hood collection, or is there another, newer one? I know the answer to that already; I couldn’t be that lucky. Actually, I think Boucher excelled on the radio rather than in the short form. Not every episode of Gregory Hood or Sherlock Holmes was a gem, and he was rarely, if ever, as clever with his puzzles as Carr could be on the airwaves. But sometimes he provided a great clue, and, as Jim states above, his prose/dialogue was aways enjoyable. That’s probably why JJ enjoys Boucher’s novels and (mostly) hates Queen – because there’s nobody who inspired Boucher more than Fergus O’Bree- I mean, Ellery Queen!!!!!!!!

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      • Having learned to enjoy reading radio mysteries so much thanks to the Bodies from the Library collections, I’d love to track down that Boucher collection. Mind you, I never thought I’d own Banner Deadlines, and I got that for stupidly low money, so never say never…

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        • Nice find on Banner Deadlines, I’ve never even come close. I did managed to find The Case Book of Gregory Hood for my price point, which is shocking, because those Crippen & Landru books become impossible to find for a reasonable price once they’ve gone out of print.

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    • The FictionMags Index doesn’t differentiate by genre, but lists some likely candidates:

      ‘The Clue of the Knave of Diamonds’
      ‘The Anomaly of the Empty Man’
      ‘A Kind of Madness’
      ‘The Left Hand’
      ‘Nine-Finger Jack’
      etc etc

      …plus, yes, the Sister Ursula story in Bodies 5. So whether there will be Some Other Mystery Stories by Anthony Boucher remains to be seen. Perhaps it might be informed by how well The Case of the Toad in the Hole sells when finally published later this year.

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      • I’m going to have to bookmark that website because I keep stumbling upon it and then forgetting it again. Now I’m off to hunt through it for several hours and dream that I had enough money to justify ordering 300 magazines…

        I’m curious if The Clue of the Knave of Diamonds is a variation of The Case of the Crumpled Knave.

        I recall TomCat having mentioned the existence of The Case of the Toad in the Hole, but I hadn’t heard that it was getting released this year. Do you have any more details?

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        • In the biographical note about Boucher that follows ‘Vacancy with Corpse’ in Bodies 5, Tony Medawar mentions that TCotTitH will be published in 2022 by Wildside Press. No details beyond that, so I guess we’re just waiting for details 🙂

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  2. As far as short story specialists go, look no further than Theodore Roscoe. Even the least of the stories in the Four Corners collection is a joy to read. That’s not to say that his full length novels aren’t extremely good (Murder on the Way being incredible), but I’ve more limited experience with them.

    I recently read The Helm of Hades collection by Paul Halter, and was surprised to learn that I don’t enjoy him nearly as much in short form. I had assumed he’d excel at short stories, but the only one that really stood out to me was Jacob’s Ladder. His novels seem to give him enough space to weave his madness.

    I’m curious about authors for which we don’t really see any short stories – Herbert Brean, Rupert Penny, Norman Berrow, David Duncan, Virgil Markham… Did they publish any short stories?

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    • Hades is the weaker of the two Halter collections; Night of the Wolf is superb, and contains some magnificent ideas that are all the better for not getting lost amidst the zaniness Halter almost can’t help adding in when he has more space. He picks his plots for to suit the form generally very well indeed.

      There are some Brean shorts, but as for Berrow, Penny, etc…eve Tony Medawar has never seen anything (believe me, I’ve asked…!) so it seems they really never did dabble to the point of having anything they were happy to publish (at least, not under their own names, hein?).

      And that Roscoe collection — the first volume, anyway — will show up on here just as soon as I get round to reading my copy. Rest assured, it won’t be a long wait…

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  3. Well, I’ve spent more time reading short stories than full-length mysteries recently, and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. Also I haven’t been keeping proper track of what I’m reading. Honestly it seems like you’ve covered a lot of short story specialists on your blog already!
    Christianna Brand is one writer who seems to be just as good at short stories as novels in my opinion. They’re usually non-series and the breakneck twists and biting irony work just as well in short form. The problem, of course, is finding them.
    These are inverted mysteries so maybe not what you’re looking for, but I’ve been finding Roy Vickers’ short stories to be good when I come across them. Now the guy also wrote bucketloads of novels, but I never hear anyone talk about those. I guess I could give a novel a go but it’s a bit more of a time investment if it turns out to be rubbish.
    If I remember any others I guess I’ll mention them.
    When it comes to Anthony Boucher what I really love is his mystery criticism, though admittedly I’ve only read 7 of Calvary out of his novels. His criticism is really insightful and witty and conveys such a strong image of the world he was writing in.

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    • I need to check out more of Brand’s short stories, thanks for the reminder. I was fortunate enough to acquire a bunch of back issues of EQMM a little while ago and I’m sure she’s in there on a few occasions, as is my new best mate Cornell Woolrich. So some combination of the two may well be forthcoming.

      I enjoyed Vickers’ early Dead Ends stories, but found them increasingly unlikely — and miserable! — as they progressed. I’m not sure I knew he’d written novels, and now I want to know what those are like.

      A collection of Boucher’s criticism as put together by Ramble House a little while ago, and it might be worth checking out — I’ll attempt to remember that the next time I’m buying a bunch from them.

      All told, many thanks — you’ve given me a lot to consider 🙂

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      • Glad to hear you say that, JJ. Your reminding me of Edmund Crispin’s short stories definitely helped me earlier in the year. I think I also saw you mention Craig Rice’s short fiction in passing, too. I love her short stories and really must read a novel by her. I think The Frightened Millionaire is a near-masterpiece (although it is probably long enough to be a novella).
        I can confirm, the Ramble House collection of Anthony Boucher’s criticism is the one I have, and in my opinion it’s well worth looking out. If you want a second opinion, I believe there is a review on crossexaminingcrime.

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