Having never read any of Boucher’s novels until this year, I am now on to my 4th! Given the slightly outlandish title, readers may be somewhat disconcerted by the idyllic domestic scene the book opens with, of Lieutenant Terence Marshall taking his turn feeding his 3 month old daughter. Of course he is also telling his wife, Leona, about his latest homicide case of a floater who has been murdered in a rooming house. The only two clues he has to go on are a telephone number and a set of unusual rosary beads. In the early days of his investigation and the early chapters of this book the reader and Terence are confronted with a man: Hilary Foulkes, the son of a now deceased but very successful science fiction writer. Determined to squeeze every last penny out of those who want to reprint or adapt his father’s work and not above petty revenge, Hilary is not a well-loved man. When the telephone number is that of Hilary’s apartment, Terence thinks he is on to something, but he is not expecting Hilary to reveal the news that someone is trying to kill him. A notion immediately supported by the ticking parcel he has just received… The suspect list is wide, given even a nun is praying for him, based on the premise of praying for your enemies. From the sci-fi writers he has hurt financially to his unsatisfied wife and his grasping brother in law, Terence has his work cut out. Given the initial clue of the rosary, Terence immediately turns to Sister Ursula, who helped him solve a locked room mystery the previous year, but for quite some time she is resistant to taking an active part in the case. Yet when events begin to take a violent and then fatal turn, Terence and Sister Ursula are racing against time to figure out what really happened and stop the law from making a miscarriage of justice.
Going into this one I had read it was not one of his better ones, so I think I had my expectations suitably low. Perhaps that is why I didn’t find it as bad as I was fearing it might be. The biggest issue mystery readers might face with this one involves when and what clues and information Boucher reveals, as I felt a number of things were withheld. There is one clue which sits there right in front of your face, from early, but even if you spot it I don’t think the reader can do much with it until much nearer the end. It actually seemed like a lot of important information was kept until the end, which meant that the middle dragged a little for me, with the narrative going around in circles without having learnt anything new. However I did like how Terence got a suspect to come up with solutions to the locked room case he is solving, (though under the guise of it being a mystery plot his wife is writing), only for the suspect, a sci-fi writer, to give lots of fantastical solutions, which couldn’t have happened, such as time travel.
One body of readers who will enjoy the milieu of this book a lot are sci-fi fans, as the suspects mostly derive from the profession of writing such fiction. This gives Boucher a lot of scope for enthusiastically discoursing on the genre, having his suspects discussing their craft and looking at the origins of the genre and one character even does a mini ‘famous lecture’ on the matter. Is this mimicking Carr’s Dr Fell? I think Boucher even gives himself a cameo part in the story with a character called Tony Boucher, who has a small part giving some witness testimony.
In some ways the puzzle of the book is marred with how the solution is presented to us in comparison to the clues we had on offer. This is a shame as Boucher does have some lovely surprises for the reader, including a very novel murder method. I did figure out one part of the solution quite early on, a hunch based on prior reading. I’m not sure how favourably locked room mystery fans view the mechanics of the solution Ursula puts forward, as I feel like some holes could be poked in it, I however did like the irony which comes at the end of the it though.
Perhaps not one to rush and buy immediately, but I still think it holds interest for that species of reader which enjoys vintage sci-fi.