Several years ago, discovering that the impossible crime novel was a thing, I read Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine (1940), originally published as by H.H. Holmes, and loved it. I then discovered TomCat’s list of favourite impossible crime novels and was intrigued by the fact that, eschewing the accepted classic that Nine Times Nine is, Boucher’s later, less discussed The Case of the Solid Key (1941) was included there instead (TC, it must be said, is something of an iconoclast…). More Boucher followed, some of it disappointing, and last year I finally ran to ground a copy of TCotSK in a secondhand bookshop in Philadelphia and — at long, long last — here we go.
I’ll he honest, I’m not really sure what this post is about. See, I’ve been mulling the appeal of the impossible crime novel for, well, years now, and having previously looked at what makes something an impossible crime the thing I’ve been mulling lately why the concept of an impossible crime is so appealing. This, then, is the end result of those lucubrations, unfocused as they are despite being pinned on a very small area of interest.
Continuing our examination of the 15 best impossible crime novels of all time as compèred by Edward D. Hoch in 1981, here is the second of three episodes looking at the titles in question from Dan and myself in our occasional podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles.
Sometimes someone is so taken with a book that you can’t help but stop and take notice yourself. So when TomCat was full of praise for this impossible crime, it hopped up my TBR pile with the effortlessness of a mountain goat on an escalator. I was promised audacity, and I love a bit of authorly audaciousness where an impossible crime is concerned — indeed, the boldness of such schemes as employed in John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Could not Shudder (1940) orJohn Saldek’s Invisible Green (1977) make them firm favourites of mine, and if a book of this ilk has chutzpah enough to make TomCat and John Norris sit up and pay attention, then surely you must be onto a good thing.
Much like being stuck with that one relative who wishes to recount every event of note from their life regardless of how interested you appear, my reminiscing about the beginnings of my detective fiction reading continues. This week, with my oft-mentioned fondness for an impossible crime, I’m going to attempt to recall the first few, faltering steps I made into the subgenre. So, let’s see now…
William Anthony Parker White, under the nom de plume Anthony Boucher, is widely considered to have been one of the most influential voices of his generation when it came to matters of detective fiction. As an anthologist and reviewer his opinions counted greatly for their insight and fairness, but as well as talking the talk he also walked the walk in a series of seven novels and over 70 short stories published in the most highly-regarded detective and SF magazines of the day.
And yet for all his output, and in part on account of his genre-changing, it’s difficult to know how Boucher’s fictional writing should be remembered. His novels cover no fewer than three different “series”, with the longest-running — centred around Irish PI/Gentleman Detective Fergus O’Breen — comprising only three of them, and the most famous — locked room murder Nine Times Nine (1940) — featuring the marvellous wannabe-detective nun Sister Ursula but succeeded by a follow-up (1942’s Rocket to the Morgue) so inane that most people have probably never picked it up based on reputation alone (which is a shame, because Sister Ursula is one of the most wonderful characters to come out of this era).
It’s doubtless a result of the generation I’m from that when I think about fictional murderers wearing distinctive costumes the first jump my mind makes is to the Ghostface killers of Wes Craven’s Scream films. If you’re a little older than me, you may go for Freddy Krueger’s striped jumper, and if you’re younger than me I have no idea what you might pick because I have lost track of whatever passes for popular culture these days, but for me it’s Ghostface.