Rocket to the Morgue (1942) by Anthony Boucher

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 3.75/5

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27 comments

  1. I believe it was Noah who clued me in to how much of a roman a clef this is, with pasquinades of (among others) Adrian Conan Doyle, L. Ron Hubbard, and (I think…) Robert Heinlein. Fine, and probably hilarious if you get it, but it needs to stand as a mystery in its own right by my reckoning, and I’m with you in finding it underwhelming. Sister Ursula is a marvel of a character, and the first death is well-framed, but you’re absolutely right that a lot id not necessarily revealed in the — how to put this — right way.

    Also, yeah, I’m pretty sure that is Boucher making a reference to himself in the text. This would have been originally published under the nom de plume H.H. Holmes, and it might be Boucher trying to throw suspicion off himself after apparently thumbing his nose at such prominent members of the SF community. I’m not enturely sure how well know the real identiy of Holmes was…someone else, I’m sure, will be able to enlighten us.

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  2. I haven’t bought this title yet, although I’ve been tempted a number of times. I’ve also never seen the edition that you posted – I might try to track that one down.

    It’s incredibly difficult to not simply burn right through Boucher’s entire mystery catalogue. If there’s anyone whose writing feels like John Dickson Carr, I’d say that it’s Boucher. Not just the puzzles and mysteries, but the presentation of the characters and how the stories unfold (although there’s an inherent difference given the California setting).

    I’m eying my copy of The Case of the Seven Sneezes and trying to put it out of mind. There are so few of these to enjoy.

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    • Yes I was quite fortunate to get 3 of my 4 Boucher reads as a job lot for around £7, which is also why I’ve been able to bash through all 4 in one year (I’m not good at spacing authors out!). But now my TBR pile is empty I might be able to space out Boucher’s remaining titles. I’d not consider him to be like Carr, but now you mention it I can see where you’re coming from. Do we know if they were ever in contact with each other?

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      • There is a tantalizingly brief passage in Francis M. Nevins’ Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection where he mentions that Boucher hated Queen’s novel Ten Days’ Wonder, and found himself in a dilemma after it was published because he’d just been hired to review books for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and what was he going to say about a Queen book he thought was terrible? According to Nevins, Boucher met personally with Frederic Dannay, with John Dickson Carr also present, to discuss the situation. Wouldn’t I have loved to be a fly on the wall at that conference!

        By the way, Boucher ended up writing a review of TDW in which he pulled most of his punches. I think I would have just avoided reviewing it in EQMM altogether, if I’d been in his place, but I can see he felt he was in a difficult situation. Carr’s policy, when he took over as EQMM’s monthly reviewer, was to review only books he liked; sometimes there were no new books that pleased him in a given month, so he’d review a classic instead.

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  3. I disliked this one on account of the ridiculous explanation for the locked room mystery, which I regard as a cheat, but the background of science-fiction fandom was interesting.

    Some of you might like to know that there’s an actual link between Rocket to the Morgue and Boucher’s radio detective-series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood. One of the episodes, entitled “The Derringer Society,” revolves around a group of fans of Fowler Faulkes’ Doctor Derringer. The literary legacy and the Derringer stories are an important part of Rocket to the Morgue.

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  4. Thanks for the review, which made me less excited about my copy of the novel on my Kindle. I suppose I should keep ‘9×9’ or ‘Crumpled Knave’ for the last! Or possibly ‘Seven Calvary’?

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  5. I found Rocket a very enjoyable read up to the solution. I agree with those who consider the secret of the locked room a severe disappointment. I didn’t think the one in Nine Times Nine was any great shakes, but it’s a lot better than this one.

    For anyone who might be curious about the real-life counterparts of the fictional characters, here are the main points I’ve gleaned from several sources:

    Austin Carter = Robert Heinlein
    Bernice Carter = Catherine L. Moore (who was not Heinlein’s wife, by the way)
    Don Stuart (who is offstage throughout) = John Campbell. Interestingly, in a letter written in 1942, Campbell says that “the detective” in Rocket is based on Boucher himself. I assume he means Lt. Marshall and not Sister Ursula.
    D. Vance Wimpole = L. Ron Hubbard
    Joe Henderson = a combination of Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton
    Matt Duncan = Cleve Cartmill
    Hillary St. John Foulkes = Adrian Conan Doyle plus whoever was the literary executor of Edgar Rice Burroughs (both of whom had the same attitude to their particular great man’s works). I guess that makes Fowler Foulkes a combination of Arthur Conan Doyle and Burroughs.

    Campbell also says that the real-life Mañana Literary Society broke up after the U.S. entered the Second World War. I guess that’s one reason Rocket ends just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    Boucher once wrote in his San Francisco Chronicle book review column: “There are reasons… why I may neither discuss the identity nor review the novels of H.H. Holmes,” which sounds to me like a pretty broad hint that he was Holmes… so I doubt it was much of a secret among his colleagues.

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  6. “Sci-fi” is a much-disliked neologism among some devotees of sf. In part because it was seized upon, shortly after Forrest Ackerman introduced it, to describe the cheapest and most childish sorts of the drama, comic strips and occasionally the fiction, and insisting that all the narrative art of sf was similarly crude and trivial. Also because it’s distastefully cute…mystery fiction as my-fi, historical fiction as hi-fi (Ackerman’s model, the now-vanished term for audio systems), romance fiction as ro-fi, contemporary/mimetic fiction as contempo-fi. Not great. “Literary fiction” (as opposed to all that non-literary or supposedly sub-literary) fiction as litfic is similarly cutesy and at least as problematic.

    “H. H. Holmes” was certainly known to be William “Anthony Boucher” White by much of the SF and CF literary communities, not least because that pseudonym for the Chicago Exposition mass-murderer (see Robert Bloch’s AMERICAN GOTHIC and THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY) was attributed to his possibly genuine name Herman W. Mudgett, which “Boucher” used as his pseudonym for light verse fillers he’d use in the otherwise blank spaces at the end of stories in his THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION (whether he and his initial editorial partner J. Francis McComas also placed the “Mudgett” verse in their short-lived TRUE CRIME DETECTIVE magazine from the same publisher, also EQMM’s initial publisher, Mercury Press, I don’t yet know). “Boucher” was reviewing the CF and some other books for the NEW YORK TIMES and “Holmes” was the similar reviewer for the NEW YORK HERALD-TRIBUNE in the same years…not quite a monopoly, but hidden only from the more innocent readers.

    FWIW, Catherine Moore wasn’t married to Heinlein, but her husband and eventual mutually constant collaborator till his early death was the similarly talented and nearly as influential Henry Kuttner; meanwhile, Heinlein’s wife in the 1940s was the engaged (and perhaps at very least a first reader for her husband) Leslyn Heinlein. The joy of the roman-a-clef aspects for sf readers was indeed much of the appeal of the novel. The actual Mañana Literary Society in LA also involved other colorful characters, such as rocket engineer and cultist Jack Parsons, the subject of some renewed interest of late.

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    • No derision was intended with the phrase sci-fi (more a case of lazy fingers wanting to avoid writing it out in full numerous times.) But the background to it all is very interesting so thanks for bringing it up.

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      • Oh. I didn’t take it that way…the use of the term is almost a default these years…sorry if it seemed otherwise. Always did hate “sigh-fie” (as Spider Robinson would put it) as a label…”insiders” also make a bit of fun with it by pronouncing it (and writing it) “skiffy”…

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  7. And, also FWIW, John Campbell is represented in the novel by “Don Stuart” because Campbell, whose fiction initially tended toward hyper-competent engineering adventurers, also began publishing rather more thoughtful and rather different stories as by “Don A. Stuart” (derived from his wife’s maiden name, Doña Stuart)…among those stories was the novella “Who Goes There?”, the basis, if rather dumbed down for adaptation, for the several films over the decades known as variations on THE THING, including those directed by Howard Hawks and by John Carpenter. Alec Nevala-Lee has a new historical volume out now, also getting some attention, about the interaction of Campbell as magazine editor with Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard…for good and ill, as Campbell was also prone to crackpot enthusiasms, and was among the early boosters of Hubbard’s DIANETICS and the subsequent events.

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