The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) by Anthony Boucher

I’m glad to get back to Boucher, having very much enjoyed his first O’Breen novel, The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939), which I read back in April. In this story Detective Fergus O’Breen is not too keen on his next potential client, Lucas Quincey, who wants him to solve a 25 year old unsolved murder, but does not want the police involved at any stage. The cold case in question takes place in 1915, when a bridesmaid is found murdered after a wedding. The crime at the time was poorly looked into and was weakly assumed to be a robbery gone wrong. Prior to this killing two cats belonging to members of the suspect group were violently killed in a similar manner. Were these incidents all linked? Some characters certainly think so, especially when a new dead cat appears – does this mean the same killer is back and prepared to progress to human killings? Through various means and ways O’Breen gets invited to the 25th anniversary celebrations involving the original wedding party, which is taking place on Blackman’s Island. Of course things immediately start going wrong from the moment O’Breen sets foot on the island: their only form of transport is jettisoned, two peripheral characters are seriously injured and O’Breen’s suitcase of useful stuff disappears. O’Breen is confident that his policeman friend will come to the rescue, though the reader cannot share his confidence, seeing the hand of fate pushing that source of support further and further away from him. Naturally corpses begin to come and thick and fast, as day pushes into night and the story mostly takes place within this 24 hour period.

Overall Thoughts

Today’s read is another strong effort by Boucher, with a fiendish puzzle. Whilst I think there are some nods towards Christie’s earlier And Then There Were None (1939), I think Boucher produces a much more complicated solution, one which is akin to a nest of Russian dolls. It is not that earlier solutions mentioned are necessarily entirely wrong, but that there are wheels within wheels within this mystery.

The character psychology in this tale is very interesting. O’Breen makes the point that all of the guests on the island are out of character in one respect with one other person within the group, which adds an extra dimension to the puzzle factor. It is also intriguing, near surprising how uncooperative these suspects are, in trying to solve the mystery. You could say their survival instinct is none too strong, as the wedding couple in particular are more annoyed by the way their anniversary celebrations are being ruined than frightened that they could be next on the hit list. Both the world wars, although in the background, play an important and unusual part in the case, with suggestions that murders are a consequence of war induced shock on the part of murderer.

So based on my two reads so far I feel I can definitely recommend Boucher as a writer. He seems to provide not only complex puzzles but also an engaging writing style and characters. There a couple of reasonably priced copies of this book online between £10 and £15, but there aren’t many, so I would advise to grab them whilst you can!

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): On an Island

Two of my favourite quotes from the book:

‘As soon as the Great Detective shows up at the house party, all hell busts loose. Murder in every nook and cranny. Murders by every crook and nanny. And at the grand finale he nabs the murderer and preens his tail feathers and says What a good boy I am and the hell with those corpses. But my – what can I say without sounding like a prig? – my professional ideals don’t run that way. I think the best detective isn’t the guy that solves murders; he’s the man who prevents them.’

‘If all you want is easiness, it’s a damned sight easier just not to do puzzles. As long as you want puzzles at all, you want good solid honesttogod bastardly braincrackers.’ ‘I’ve heard they’re different in England, but the American puzzle fan wants something that looks hard and is easy. He wants to pat himself on the back and say Wasn’t he smart to do that one so quick?’

27 comments

  1. I think this is an excellent puzzle mystery and I also recommend it. I think it has a strong piece of characterization of Alyx, whom we might describe in today’s terms as a sex addict — she’s not just there for meretricious reasons, there’s actually some depth to her personality. But I’ve always been troubled by what for spoiler reasons I will call the physiology of one of the stabbing victims. That just seems way, way too good to be true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In addition to all the work I described elsewhere, Boucher and his partner J. Francis McComas also briefly edited TRUE CRIME DETECTIVE stories for Mercury Press, in addition to the services provided to ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSERY MAGAZINE and founding and editing THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION…here’s some covers for EQMM, MERCURY MYSTERY and TRUE CRIME DETECTIVE reusing the same cover photo, amusingly to me (it’s a good photo)…http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com/2012/05/1950s-eqmmmercury-press-cover-photo.html

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      • Sand and negligees are not natural allies, no. And in case I eave a false impression in the reference above, TRUE CRIME DETECTIVE (as the title implies) was a short-lived true-crime magazine, and to the few reports I’ve seen an unsurprisingly literate one. Perhaps (or not) surprisingly, editors of fantasy and horror magazines such as Boucher and McComas and, much later TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE editor T.E.D. Klein have been also editors of notable, in part because unusually literate and responsible, true-crime magazines.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this one years ago and liked it very much, but what I remember best is the wonderfully bizarre scene in the hallway. Several characters had to sing “Three Blind Mice” to convince a frightened man, who had locked himself into his bedroom, that they were three separate people instead of a sinister cut-throat mimicking their voices. I don’t know why, but that scene has always stuck with me.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This novel sounds like one I’d like – thanks for the recommendation. 🙂 Having purchased ‘Nine Times Nine’ and ‘Crumpled Knave’ from my local Kindle store, I was disappointed that ‘Seven Sneezes’ hasn’t been released as a ebook by Murder Room. And so I snapped up the last available physical copy between between £10 and £15! There are still a handful of reasonably-priced copies for the buyer/ reader based in USA though.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the review – this book wasn’t even on my radar and it sounds like a must read. The setup and similarity to And Then There Were None sounds fantastic.

    I’m currently reading Nine Times Nine and enjoying Anthony Boucher’s writing. If I were to write down every memorable passage in the book I’d end up with a small novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Haven’t read this one. Enjoyed the review. However, note that TCOT Crumpled Knave is not Boucher’s first mystery novel. His first was TCOT Seven of Calvary, which I found to be better than Crumpled Knave. The latter is enjoyable but becomes rather uninspired in the one-half to three-quarters sector. Seven of Calvary has much more personality to it.

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