Another Tuesday, another triumvirate of stories from the Exeunt Murderers [ss] (1983) anthology of short crime fiction by Anthony Boucher.
First up in this tranche is ‘The Retired Hangman’, a.k.a. ‘Murder Was Their Business’ (1947), which just might be the most fabulous thing in this entire collection. This sees the now-retired Alonso Fuss, “the best darned hangman the state of Iowa ever had”, come into the orbit of our narrator and, from there, of criminologist and true crime writer Hagar Dix. It is Dix’s fascination with murderers that makes Fuss so compelling to her, not least because Fuss is so unaffected by the 40-odd men he killed, “just another retired businessman talking shop and his big executions have about as much thrill to them as a retired dentist’s account of his trickiest impacted wisdom tooth.”
Not only does this pack some excellent developments, it manages to generate a situation in which murder is committed and to furnish Fuss, Dix, and our narrator with equally good motives for committing it. Something about the casual, meandering tone Boucher adopts in the telling here really brings home the impact of the motives, too; were this told in a more clipped style, or were we removed from events through a third-person telling…I dunno, I don’t think it would sell itself even half as well. Perhaps the time taken to get to know the central menage works in its favour, but, whatever, it’s a superb setup that still has plenty of surprises to spring.
The ending has about it one particular idea which appeals to me, and when the rounds of reveal and counter-reveal are played it’s clear why things went down as they did. Maybe it’s a little shy in a few details, and maybe you could dock it points for one overweening coincidence that makes the whole thing tick, but sometimes it pays to sit back and admire the artistry of a piece of work, and I’m saying this is one of those times. Brilliant stuff, can I have another twelve, please?
By contrast, ‘The Smoke-Filled Locked Room’ (1950) left me distinctly underwhelmed, largely on account of the sheer amount of setup involved. Here it’s a politician found murdered in his motel bathroom in impossible circumstances, but gleeps does it feel like we have to wade through a lot of politics to get there. As a fan of the impossible crime I should be able to find something to say about this one, but it’s far too long, written in such flat prose that you wonder if Boucher was concentrating on the political focus like he thought he was making some sort of point, and the solution is only difficult to come by because the police are inattentive to a staggeringly useless degree.
Also, in a move that vaguely irritates me, the smoky room of the title — in which a bunch of interns and other organisers sit smoking and talking politics — has nothing to do with the impossible murder. It’s not that someone must have left that room but, in opening a door or window, would have let the cloud of smoke out and so there’s an impossible element to who got out and/or how they could have done it, oh no. One room contains an impossible murder, and another, not even adjacent, room is filled with smoke and has the door closed the whole time. On that basis, you might as well name the story after the elderly couple who complain about not being able to get a good night’s sleep in the motel because of all the to-ing and fro-ing going on.
Er, positives? We’ll go neutral and say that this has echoes of The Polferry Riddle, a.k.a. The Choice (1931) by Philip MacDonald, and Boucher’s tendency to make meta-textual references to himself in his work — c.f. Rocket to the Morgue (1942) — leads me to believe that he might be the “mystery writer up in Berkeley who thinks he’s playing politics” referred to herein…but aside from that I’ve got nothing. I’ve largely enjoyed these tales, and you’d think a disappearing weapon story from this pen would prove enticing to me…turns out we’d both be wrong!
‘The Statement of Jerry Malloy’, a.k.a. ‘Command Performance’ (1955) sees the eponymous Jerry giving a statement to the police about his double-act with Eugene ‘Gene’ Dakin, an act which turned a little sour when Gene fell in love with Stella, a woman they meet at one of their shows. Gene and Stella marry, but the presence of Jerry causes friction (“…there’s more booing than cooing in that love nest.”) which in turn affects their act as it seemed about to reach a zenith of popularity (“It’s a lousy show. We lay enough eggs to bring the market down ten cents a dozen wholesale.”).
From here…well, it’s a very short piece and the inevitability of proceedings might have at least one surprise up its sleeve. There’s a great piece of retrospective realisation here when something you’ve been told is seen as both very accurate and very inaccurate indeed, and it’s all the better for coming at the end of such a punchy, brief, well-constructed piece as this.
Anyone paying attention will know that I’ve been reviewing three stories a week from the final section of this collection, and those of you with an insight into this collection will know that only two stories remain. I don’t want you worrying about this for the next week, however, so be reassured that I have a plan. See you in seven days for the reveal…