I have been working my way through this collection for a couple of months now and have at last finished. This book contains the reviews and articles Boucher wrote between 1942 and 1947 for the San Francisco Chronicle and it is divided into three sections. Part 1 covers the mystery fiction articles Boucher wrote once a month for the San Francisco Chronicle and it is this section I will be looking at in my first post. Whilst part 2 of the collection includes Boucher’s individual mystery fiction reviews, which he produced for a weekly column and I will be commenting on those in a second post. The final section of the book is comprised of longer reviews Boucher wrote for non-mystery books, and as such I won’t be commenting on it in my own review.
Francis M. Nevin who edited the collection, also provides an informative introduction, as well as explanatory comments in the other sections when needed. Nevin’s introduction was really good at painting a picture, not only of Boucher as a reviewer, but also as a person as well, offering the reader many interesting nuggets of information. The scope and quantity of work, interests and hobbies Boucher participated in, in his 56 years, is breathtakingly impressive. It should come as no surprise that Boucher could read a book in 2-3 hours and then write the review in under 30 minutes. Nevin also touches upon Boucher’s views on mystery fiction as a genre, quoting Phyllis White, Boucher’s wife, who recalled him saying that: ‘the heresy of our age is the perceived dichotomy between art and entertainment: if something is one, it cannot be the other.’ Boucher was unsurprisingly a big champion of the genre, and like Dorothy L. Sayers felt it could achieve great things. I think it makes a real difference if the person writing about mystery fiction actually loves that type of story in the first place and it is easy to see Boucher’s monthly articles and weekly reviews are dripping with enthusiasm.
In his first monthly article, on 25th October 1942, Boucher outlines his pictorial rating system, which is something I have not come across with other reviewers of the time. His system had four faces:
‘The first, the man whose hair has risen right off his head, will be used sparingly – only for the absolute masterpiece that some Howard Haycraft to come will positively have to include in his book on whodunits. The second, whose hair still clings to the scalp but points straight up, means a sweet job that belongs on your reading list. The third, the dubious and not quite happy one, means a fair enough mystery that’ll do if there’s nothing else in the library. The very unhappy fourth face will, I hope, be even more scarce than the first: it will mark incompetent work that should never have been published.’
Unfortunately, the collection does not include these images and attempts to track down an example have not been successful. However, it is still clear from the written reviews what Boucher thought of a book, and incidentally sometimes the faces were incorrectly printed so the wrong ones were attached to the wrong reviews. Boucher also points out with his rating system, that since he is not keen on Had-I-But-Known novels, those who enjoy them should ‘mark the faces up one notch,’ when he reviews them. Conversely, Boucher goes on to write that:
‘I am […] more of a sucker for meticulous slow-paced British novels than is the average American mystery-renter. I’m quite apt to give the first face to a Freeman Wills Crofts or an R. Austin Freeman. Again you are forewarned, and in these cases mark them down a notch.’
Another feature which crops up in the monthly articles is random “bests” of the month, such as the neatest clue, the trickiest plot, and the most ingenious murderer. I enjoyed these sections and I wonder whether it might be an interesting idea to develop for my own monthly roundups. Boucher also tries his hand at guessing the real names behind certain mystery fiction pennames and given he was working in the days before the internet, he doesn’t do too badly.
References to the ongoing war (WW2) make their way into his monthly articles at times, such as on the 6th December 1942 when Boucher comments that:
‘The men in service read and like mysteries. You may have been hearing how much more serious-minded our soldiers are in this war, and pictured them devoting their reading time exclusively to texts on higher mathematics. But the army is buying unprecedented quantities of mysteries for its libraries and still failing to keep up with the demand.’
I am sure there is a short story in the idea of someone joining the army purely to get their mitts on a much sought-after mystery novel… This preference for crime fiction also chimes in with the fact that such books were very popular during the Blitz. Later in 1943, Boucher includes an occasional subsection entitled: WAR DEPARTMENT, which commented on how good publishers were at conserving paper or how well contemporarily set mysteries were taking wartime conditions into account in their work. Similar comments also crop up in his reviews, such as in 1944 when he reviewed Jimmy Starr’s The Corpse Came C. O. D: ‘Sleazy, sexy Hollywood murder tale by a film columnist, as full of star names as a movie magazine and somewhat less literate. The Hollywood firm of Murray & Gee is a new imprint in mysteries; they seem to have a lot of paper.’
Something which struck me when reading Boucher’s articles, was how it feels like Boucher and the reader are on the same side; both lovers of mystery fiction and both therefore liable to readerly disappointments. You could say the reader is able to identify with Boucher’s position and it is also a little amusing to see how some of the gripes haven’t changed all that much. For example, on the 28th March 1943, Boucher wrote:
‘Remember when mystery novels used to be puzzles? The majority of the crop now is anything else but. There are romances, there are farces, there are psychological studies, there are spy novels … Lord, are there spy novels!’
It is not that Boucher did not like these other forms but that he really wanted ‘a good solid puzzle’ he could ‘sink’ his ‘teeth into.’ How important the puzzle is, is a debate which has been going on for a long time and it is interesting to see which side Boucher lands on: ‘never forget that the mystery novel is a fascinating and rigid form, and that a mystery without a puzzle is like a 13-line sonnet.’ Spy and espionage novels were not the only subgenre on the increase during Boucher’s time as a reviewer, as in 1946 when he reviewed Patrick Laing’s Murder from the Mind, he wrote that: ‘one more amnesia-victim whodunit is going to cause a serious trauma in this reviewer’s psyche.’ Unfortunately for his psyche there were more such novels on their way that year…
Meanwhile, perhaps on a less contentious note on the 25th April of the same year, Boucher also describes that moment when you just can’t find the right book to read:
‘It’s always a dreary moment in the life of a mystery fan when there’s nothing new by his favourite authors, he’s never heard of any of the whodunits on the shelves and the assistant librarian is on duty who doesn’t know his tastes. He winds up saying eeny-meeny-miny-moe and eventually, like as not, spends a pretty terrible evening.’
It might just be me, but I felt like these passages helped the article to feel like a cosy chat between two good friends.
Naturally in this section and the next, there were a plethora of characters, authors and novels mentioned which I had never heard of before and if I lived in America I am sure this collection would have been far more ruinous to my bank balance than it has been. However, some familiar names do crop up and it is always fun to see how my own views compare with Boucher’s. Both of us quite enjoyed Carter Dickson’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), though Boucher may have been more enthralled than me, encouraging readers to ‘revel in the most absolute locked (or in this case sealed) room yet devised by man.’ Our thoughts were also aligned with Craig Rice’s Home Sweet Homicide (1944), which again we are advised to ‘revel in.’
However, at times Boucher had me scratching my head. Could he really not think of a ‘better mystery novel’ than Sayers’ The Nine Tailors? I definitely raised an eyebrow when he selected Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (1943), not only as one of his best reads of the year, but also ‘best-period;’ identifying it as a ‘permanent contribution to criminous literature.’ Incidentally the other titles selected in 1943, for the same accolade were: She Died a Lady by Carter Dickson, Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Wall of Eyes by Margaret Millar. Regarding the last title he goes on to say that it is ‘probably the very cream of the year, it has everything, whether viewed as a psychological novel or a whodunit.’
In keeping with his earlier lament, in his roundup for 1943 he also comments on the fact that espionage novels were now taking up a third of the books he reviewed. This opinion does not come across as snobbish, as Boucher did enjoy such books when written well, writing on the 28th February 1943 that ‘Eric Ambler is the greatest spy novelist of all time, beside whom all others are pygmies.’ Moreover, later that year Boucher took Dorothy Cameron Disney to task for being positively snobbish towards Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme.
In her review she said that ‘COLOUR SCHEME is a must for everyone who wants the kind of mystery story that would bore anyone fascinated by Terry and the Pirates.’ Terry and the Pirates, in case you’re wondering, was an action-adventure comic strip, and was one Boucher enjoyed, so he didn’t like the implication that you couldn’t like comic strips as well as a Marsh novel.
Whilst he praises the work of Ellery Queen, his enthusiasm for their output and publications did not prevent him from taking them to task. For instance, in one of his monthly articles he comments on a list they gave in Good Housekeeping entitled ‘The Ten Most Important Detective Novels.’ Boucher was certainly against the idea of S. S. Van Dine being historically important and felt his work was ‘irrelevant to the history and development of the detective story.’ He was also baffled by praise given to Dine’s novels at the time they were published, shaking his head, at the Chicago Post, who suggested that his books ‘raised [detective novels] to a high art.’
Moreover, on 25th November 1945, Boucher tackles Raymond Chandler and his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ It is a pity that Boucher’s rebuttal is not as well-known as Chandler’s piece which in the intervening years has often been regarded as the final word on detective fiction. Boucher writes that:
‘Chandler says in effect that Hammett took murder away from the vicar’s rose garden and gave it back to the people “who are really good at it.” But a mobster, a gunman […] is not good at murder – simply at killing. De Quincey rightly insisted that there was more to murder than two blockheads and a dark lane; and the true murders that survive over centuries and still exercise their fascination are precisely those that stem from the vicar’s rose garden. The hard-boiled novel (and I mean the school – the masters are smarter) offers not murders but killings unworthy of any writing beyond the police blotter. It also offers an appalling mental and spiritual vacuum in which people think solely with their muscles and love solely with their gonads. Add an almost fascistic contempt for democratic processes and exaltation of private force, and you have their sickeningly empty world. Truth? Ask yourself – you, the average reader. You know people somewhat like those you meet in all the other mysteries save the top-bracket ones. Have you ever met these characters that drink five quarts without showing it and receive three beating daily without noticeable effect? Is this realism or is it wild romanticism of a world compounded equally of sadism and over-compensation?’
Yet fascism was not the only thing that Boucher disagreed with and in several passages in this collection it is fair to say he promotes racial equality. For example, in his article for July 1944 he reveals his support for anti-racism title, Sleepy Lagoon Mystery by Guy Endore. This book looks at the Zoot Suit riots and Boucher describes it as an ‘account of one of the most dubious murder trials ever held in a democracy, and an exposure of the ugly racist philosophy that made such a trial possible.’ Furthermore, in his reviews Boucher often criticises a book if it uses lazy racist stereotypes to describe a Jewish or Black person. Vice versa those mysteries with more nuanced characterisation are praised for doing so.
Nevertheless, Boucher was always ready to admit any of his own mistakes and at one point he created a subsection in his articles entitled: Lusitania Department. In this section he would bring up factual errors in the mystery novels he reviewed. Yet this category was inspired by the fact that in one of his own books, his father pointed out he had the Lusitania sailing the wrong way, (nobody else had noticed).
Another joy of this collection is that I have had the chance to sample some of Lenore Glen Offord’s critical writing on mystery fiction, as a few times she took over the column when Boucher was unable to do it due to other commitments. Interestingly when she wrote the monthly article for September 1943, when Boucher was in New York, she offered a defence of the little-did-I-think sentences, asserting that they encourage someone to keep reading when the scene is being set in the first 30-40 pages before the body appears. Offord feels using such sentences should not lump a writer with the Had-I-But-Known school and its negative associations.
Boucher also found the time, in his articles, to compare the Detection Club with the Mystery Writers of America, quoting extensively from E. R. Punshon when describing the former. For Boucher the British group was more of ‘a gentleman’s club’, whilst he felt their American counterparts were ‘more nearly a trade union,’ which was ‘primarily concerned with its “Crime Does Not Pay – ENOUGH!”
Staying with the business side of writing, Boucher in his October article in 1946, also considers the effect on sales when a mystery is recommended by celebrities, citing a recent strategy by Julian Messner, who created a recommended mysteries series. I think Boucher might be surprised by how much that strategy is now used, one way or another, especially since he felt a celebrity’s name would not influence him at all.
In his final monthly article, released in August 1947, I was unprepared for his gloomy outlook. In contrast to when he first started working on the column in 1942, he felt that the detective novel was going into a decline, as evidenced by a decrease in sales, which saw a return to pre-war figures and a reduction in new publications being published. For him publishing a mystery in 1947 was more of a financial gamble than it used to be. So perhaps it would be a pleasant surprise for Boucher to see how well mystery fiction publishing is flourishing today.
Keep your eyes peeled for my next post, which I shall hopefully have put shortly…