The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) by Anthony Boucher

Given my last Holmes review, this felt like a fitting book for my next read. This has definitely been a good week for Boucher in terms of writer exposure, as not only has Ben at The Green Capsule reviewed his novel The Case of the Solid Key, but the Puzzle Doctor has also written a post on Nine Times Nine. Quite impressed that we all hadn’t gone for the same book.

This story has a Hollywood studio backdrop as Metropolis Pictures is planning on producing an adaptation of The Adventure of the Speckled Band. Yet even before the script has been completed there are problems; namely that many members of the Baker Street Irregulars are up in arms about the choice of the screen writer, Stephen Worth, a hard boiled mystery writer who loathes Holmes and their club. But unfortunately producer, F X Weinberg cannot fire him as in his contract it is stipulated that only he can write this script. Worth is also highly unpopular with other members of the studio, including Maureen O’Breen, (sister of Fergus, the private eye in some of Boucher’s other novels), who is part of the publicity team. A character nails it when they say that wanting to physically assault or murder Worth is a reflex reaction to meeting him. To spike his guns a little and to appease the Irregulars, 5 members are invited to come to the studios and advise on the production. It is at the reception party for these five, who have been located in a house renamed as 221B, that Worth makes an ugly scene, assaulting Maureen and the newly appointed housekeeper, Mrs Hudson, as well as making unpleasant accusations about the producer and the Irregulars. Knocked out he is taken to one of the rooms and of course we all know what has happened when a car is later heard backfiring… Or do we? The Irregulars are happily pleased with the situation mainly because of the opportunity it gives them for some real life sleuthing, but do they know what they’ve let themselves in for? Boucher includes a plethora of different text types from memos to letters, as well as indulging in a myriad of Holmes allusions – dancing men messages, orange pips, Rache written in blood and so soooo much more.

Overall Thoughts

The first half of this book is the strongest in my opinion. Boucher captures the milieu of an intense body of people passionately wishing to protect their favourite literary character brilliantly and as a keen GAD fan it was easy for me to identify with them, given the mangling some of my favourite characters and stories have received over the years. Boucher also gives us the perfect victim who even the reader will want to run over after 30 seconds of being in his presence. The opening pages which reveal the cast of characters were sheer pleasure to read, with some great deft touches of humour. The pacing is strong and Boucher does give us one heck of an intriguing murder setup

So where does it all go wrong? Well wrong is probably putting it a bit strongly, but unfortunately I think Boucher loses control of his plot, which is unusual for him, given how tight he usually works. It is perhaps an investigation which sinks beneath the allusions to Holmes. A permanent suspension of disbelief is certainly required. This could have been coped with or not even bothersome if the pacing didn’t rapidly go downhill. Boucher’s decision to include a series of chapters where each Irregular gives “a narrative” is an interesting idea but unfortunately it made the story become increasingly dull and hard to read, as these Irregulars are long winded to say the least. The plot’s energy dissipates at his point and struggles to restore itself afterwards. Perhaps it was a bit too hard to have 5 Irregulars, Maureen and 3 different policemen trying to solve the mystery. A case of too many cooks or rather sleuths? I think it all got a bit too unwieldly to fully manage. There is one aspect of the solution that the reader will grasp a lot sooner than the sleuths, but for the rest I think it is pretty hard for the reader to identify the culprit.

So a book with a lot of interesting premises but the execution of the second half marred its finish. The solution is good but becomes less satisfying in some respects due to how it is delivered. If you love all things Sherlock Holmes this would be worthwhile read, as despite the pacing issues there are a lot of fun moments in this story around this archetypal sleuth and his adventures.

Rating: 3.75/5

11 comments

  1. This sounds a fairly similar experience to Rocket to the Morgue — great in principle, but falling apart as the practice becomes evident. For all Boucher’s undoubted talent in making connectuons and allusions in a startlingly clever way, I think it’s these sbortcomings in plotting that convinced him to pursue novel writing only so far and no further. Which is a shame — had he Ellery Queened up and found someone to realise the writing of his core ideas, we may have gotten a handful of masterpieces out of him/them.

    Thanks for the review, it sounds like something I’ll enjoy, and therefore something I’ll happily spend the next eight years trying to find 🙂

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    • Well fortunately this one is easy to pick up on Amazon and Abebooks for around £6 so shouldn’t be too hard to track down. A more recent edition with an intro by Otto Penzler has made this easier to get a hold of. I think you would get a lot out of it, with all of the Holmes aspects, though it’s good to know what weaknesses you will be facing. Rocket to the Morgue is the final Boucher novel in my TBR pile. Sure I will get around to it but it might not be too close to the top if it has similar issues.

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      • It’s worth getting Noah’s input on RttM before reading it, because he has an insight on the intent of that book which will put it in a different light if known in advance. It’s still not a good mystery, but someone should read it with the benefit of his observations to see if that helps improve the eperience…and since you have it lined up, you seem the perfect person to benefit from this!

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  2. This sounds like a clever set up – I hadn’t previously read anything about the plot. I like the idea of having all of these investigative threads, although it sounds like it didn’t work out in practice.

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  3. I thought this book was unreadable, I’ve enjoyed Boucher’s early detective fiction, esp THE CASE OF THE SEVEN OF CALVARY which outshines nearly everything that he wrote afterwards including NINE TIMES NINE (immensely overrated, IMO). I tried twice to read …BAKER STREET IRREGULARS and I absolutely couldn’t stand the first three chapters. I ditched it both times. I doubt I’ll tackle it a third time. I think the Hollywood movie talk and the entire setting in the studio was utterly ersatz. If it goes downhill from there then it must be his worst novel. Oddly, the book published immediately after this one is …SOLID KEY and I really enjoyed that one. It had the fun, zip and breeziness of a screwball movie from the 40s. Theater and movie studio business in that one, but none of it rang phoney like the start of TCOTBSI. Go figure.

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