#929: Little Fictions – ‘A Matter of Scholarship’ (1955), ‘The Ultimate Clue’ (1960), and ‘The Anomaly of the Empty Man’ (1952) by Anthony Boucher

A slight cheat this week — the final two stories by Anthony Boucher from the collection Exeunt Murderers [ss] (1983), and then, so that we have three stories again this week, the Holmes pastiche ‘The Anomaly of the Empty Man’ (1952) as listed in Adey.

‘A Matter of Scholarship’ (1955) is short and to the point, coming in at under 1,000 words and concerning a professor who is sought out by a man who has written a more accessible treatise on the same subject. You know where this is going, but it’ll not take up much of your time getting there and so is hard to fault too greatly.


Boucher’s private eye character Fergus O’Breen narrates ‘The Ultimate Clue’ (1960), which, we’re told early on, is “a football story, but you don’t have to know a punt from a pontoon to figure out the answer” — which is just as well, as I recall one of the Nick Noble stories (‘The Punt and the Pass’ (1945)) relaying on ludicrous sports psychology which meant nothing to me. Another short one, closer to 1,000 words this time, this again highlights the playfulness with words that Boucher would have enjoyed laying as clues, and I’ll say no more about it.


Longer again — probably 6,000 words if you’re keeping track — is ‘The Anomaly of the Empty Man’, a.k.a. ‘The Empty Man (1952), about which there is commensurately more to say. Found in the Sebastian Wolfe-edited The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes (1989) this is an odd story that, like many of the others therein, it isn’t actually a case directly involving Holmes or Dr. Watson. Indeed, the framing of this one is distinctly odd, and gives me the impression that Boucher had a wonderful time writing it knowing that his audience would have a tortuous time trying to unpick what was going on.

Ostensibly, the mystery here is “a striptease version of the Mary Celeste“, with a man’s clothes and glasses round laying on the floor of his apartment in such a way that it appears he simply evaporated out of them. And if you think you could just lay the clothes out thus, Boucher is ahead of you:

“Try it. Try fitting sleeves into sleeves, pants into pants, so they’re as smooth and even as if they were still on the body. I’ve tried, with the rest of the wardrobe. It doesn’t work… The sock’s caught on a little snag in one of the metal eyelets. That’s kept it from collapsing, and you can still see the faint impress of toes in there. Try slipping your foot out of a laced-up shoe and see if you can get that result.”

We then veer into a treatise on old vinyl recordings, listen to a recording that apparent holds the clue to the apparent evaporation, and then have to endure a reminiscence of a story from 1901 in which many of the same cases occurred, all bound by the same musical link. This brings in our Holmes facsimile — an unnamed, one-legged ex-Naval officer who sokes a pipe, consults Boswell, and holds forth in a manner that makes you wonder why Holmes wasn’t used in the first place…was he still in copyright at this point? Anyway, a solution is suggested which is pure nonsense, and then a rational one is offered through no detection or intelligence that’s probably right and reasonably clever if we had any notion that such things existed.

I’ll be honest, I did not enjoy this. Maybe it’s playful and fun, but I really couldn’t get into its groove. It leaves me with the impression that the novel or the radio — I’m yet to encounter his radio work — was where Boucher applied himself most successfully in this genre and that, well, I can skip the remainder of his short fiction. So that’s one more off the list.


So a short one from me today, it seems. See you on Thursday for a little more depth.

4 thoughts on “#929: Little Fictions – ‘A Matter of Scholarship’ (1955), ‘The Ultimate Clue’ (1960), and ‘The Anomaly of the Empty Man’ (1952) by Anthony Boucher

  1. Maybe it’s just as well that I haven’t managed to get my hands on this collection yet, although it is Boucher, so I’ll probably keep trying.

    I’ve been curious – how do you do your word count estimations? You could obviously count the words on a single page and extrapolate from there, but I suspect you aren’t going through that trouble.


    • I spent 15 months writing, rewriting, rerewriting, and rererewriting a novel, and became something of a doyen at knowing how many words were on a page, or in a paragraph. Were this skill marketable I’d really be onto something, but instead I’ll just add it to the litany of useless crap I have in my armoury.


    • I don’t claim to be a word-count expert or anything, but whenever I’m curious about a book’s word count for any reason, I use this method: Choose a random page that starts in the middle of a paragraph (so that the top line is full,) then count the number of words in the top line. Then multiply by the number of lines on the page. Then multiply by the number of pages that actually have text. Obviously it’s going to be an overestimate because of paragraph indentations and chapter breaks, but it works.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Actually, don’t tell anyone, but I keep someone on a retainer to count exactly how many words are in every book and story I read, and then I just round it to the nearest 2,000 or so in order to look smart.

        Liked by 1 person

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