The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939) by Anthony Boucher

I’ve known about Boucher for quite a while, mainly as a critic of mystery fiction, but it is only now that I have managed to get my hands on some of his own detective novels – and I must say I am very impressed with this one.

It all begins with Colonel Theodore Rand receiving a telegram from his old friend, Humphrey Garnett, a card collector and enthusiast who wants him to come to Los Angeles. He also gives Rand this cryptic and mysterious message: ‘You may be invaluable witness at inquest on my body. Watch Hector carefully.’ Yet when Rand arrives, Garnett is already dead, poisoned. The obvious suspect and the one which is initially arrested is the fiancé of Garnett’s daughter, Kay. His incriminating secrets come out very quickly, but he is not the only one who benefits from Garnett’s death. After all there is Arthur Willowe, Garnett’s brother in law, who has been tormented and bullied by Garnett ever since the car crash he caused killed Garnett’s wife. There is also the earnest William Harding, Garnett’s laboratory assistant, who was hoping for some money for research in his will, as well as the more mysterious and exotic Camilla Sallice. She was supposedly Garnett’s protégé – but is she really something else? We also have the intriguing clue/dying message of Garnett, a crumpled playing card bearing the picture of the knave of diamonds, a clue which has many interpretations by the end of the novel. The majority of the novel follows Fergus, a private detective hired to clear Kay’s fiancé and Colonel Rand also tags along as the Watson figure.

Overall Thoughts

This is definitely a novel which shows Boucher’s understanding of the mystery genre. He beautifully adds in light touches of metafiction, before unfurling a twisting and surprising solution, which turns some of the key tropes of the genre on their head. He certainly had me fooled. I was so sure I had figured it all out, for once, and of course I had it completely wrong, having fallen for some of the early placed red herrings. There is only perhaps one aspect of the plot which I did not like how it was introduced. It felt overdone and slightly repetitive, but thankfully this did not significantly mar my enjoyment of the book.

The characters are also wonderfully done as well, both the sleuthing and suspect parties. Colonel Rand was a particular favourite, even if he has some very short sighted views on the nature of war. His first appearance is highly entertaining with his debacles of travel via plane and taxi, showing him comically at unease, with odd moments of ‘tragedy [turning] into farce.’ His humour is also enjoyable and one of my favourite lines is when Rand sees Fergus O’Breen for the first time: ‘Colonel Rand had never before seen a detective in a tight fitting yellow polo shirt. It was not a good idea.’ Yet mystery fans who love a good puzzle will also not be disappointed, as the reader has plenty of clues to grapple with, which are fairly slippery and open to more than one interpretation. The theme of cards and card playing was also worked well into the story – providing interesting information, which was not overdone. Though it did surprise me that there was a character who loved collecting cards for their design, but had no interest in playing card games – felt like people who buy books for their covers, yet have no intentions of reading them. Is it just me or are such things odd?

Regardless this is a brilliant book and one I would definitely recommend trying if you can get a copy.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Death by Poison

15 comments

    • I know! I’ve written a list of books I definitely want to re-read but no idea when I’ll get started on it. Perhaps you could farm out some of your reading of Elizabeth George, Paul Halter etc. to your cats? That or make your cats into famous celebrities and live off the proceeds, thus giving yourself time for more reading.

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  1. This was early in Boucher’s career. However some of this seems like it was taken from the early Ellery Queen novel, The Siamese Twin Mystery. Especially with the use of the Knave of Diamonds as a dying message clue. And it also seems to use the double solution gimmick which many Queen novels also used.

    Liked by 1 person

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