In my last post I began my exploration of Anthony Boucher’s reviews and articles which he composed for the San Francisco Chronicle between 1942 and 1947. In my that post I concentrated on his articles, whilst this next post will be bringing some interesting highlights from his reviews, plus some final comments on the collection as a whole.
I decided to organise my “highlights” into different categories and the first of these is…
Classic Crime’s Big Cheeses: Boucher’s Thoughts on Well-Known Mystery Authors
Naturally Agatha Christie comes under this heading and whilst Boucher felt The Moving Finger (1942) was ‘passable second string Christie,’ he was more positive about Sparkling Cyanide (1944) which he said was ‘for devotees of the pure puzzle’ and that ‘this is the finest Christie in years – intricate, fair and unguessable.’ Interestingly WW2 delayed him reading Death Comes as the End in the year it was published, reviewing it in 1945 instead. Nevertheless, he thought it was ‘1944’s oddest and most interesting whodunit…’ He was also enthusiastic about The Hollow (1946) writing that ‘a Grade-A plot combined with a much solider novel than usual makes this the best Christie in years…’
John Dickson Carr also garnered several reviews during this five-year period from Boucher and if any I would say these reviews were even more positive than those Christie received. For example, Boucher commented on the ‘admirable characterisation, precise plotting and a flawless surprise solution to bring you out of your chair,’ in The Emperor’s Snuffbox (1942). Meanwhile, with Till Death Do Us Part (1944), we are told that it is ‘100-proof Carr’ and that it has a ‘skilful interplay of character, brilliant manipulation of suspicion, [and] another superlative locked room.’ Sometimes, for Boucher, the high quality of a book made him refrain from giving many details about it. This was the case for Carr’s He Who Whispers (1946) which he says:
‘is Carr in excelsis, constructed with such admirably chilling suspense from the first word that I decline even to outline the kinds of impossible murder, supernatural terror and abnormal psychology with which Dr Gideon Fell is confronted.’
However, high quality is not the only factor which sometimes caused Boucher to refrain from saying much about the story, with some occasions being brought on by plots which refused to be summarised. At least some of my readers will know which author I am about to mention…
…Yes it is indeed good old Harry Stephen Keeler. Nowadays he is a rather obscure author, who is not widely read, though there are some dedicated fans out there. But back in the day, Keeler was an unforgettable and divisive writer. He is the ultimate marmite author in my opinion and in his review of The Case of the Lavender Gripsack (1944), Boucher notes that the story ‘displays the incredibly fertile imagination and equally incredible bad writing of all Keeler.’ He felt this book was ‘for devotees only,’ though he adds ‘(which includes, I confess, me).’ Moreover, with The Case of the Ivory Arrow (1943), Boucher throws up his hands and writes that:
‘I’ve given up trying to describe Keeler novels. Either you like them or you don’t […] His fabulous fertility could make Keeler the greatest writer in the business – if he could only write.’
Boucher’s time as a reviewer also saw the rise of many new names in the business, including Edmund Crispin. Initially Boucher was quite positive about Crispin’s work, writing in his review for The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) that Crispin ‘may easily hit the top ranks as soon as he rubs off a few rough edges.’ However, this praise is not repeated when it came to The Moving Toyshop (1946):
‘The expenditure of Mr Crispin’s unquestioned gifts of wit, poetry and scholarship on his confused plots, crass low comedy and unbelievable detective is the saddest example of conspicuous waste in the detective field.’
Thankfully Crispin seems to have redeemed himself with his next book, Swan Song (1947) with Boucher saying that ‘for the first time I’m wholly converted to Mr Crispin.’
Another British mystery writer that Boucher more consistently enjoyed was George Bellairs. He found Death of a Busybody (1942) to be an ‘unusually adroit and delightful specimen of the English whodunit’ and in his review for The Dead Shall Be Raised (1942), he wrote that: ‘This one has the same meticulous thoroughness, strong characterisation, local colour and quiet Thirkellish wit which put Mr Bellairs and his Littlejohn well in the top rank of the Scotland Yard school.’ Christianna Brand also garnered many positive reviews from Boucher. The solution for Green for Danger (1944) ‘legitimately made’ his ‘eyes pop for the first time in long months,’ and in his later review of Suddenly at His Residence (1946), Boucher thought that ‘Miss Brand writes with the social comedy of an Allingham and the plot technique of a Christie.’ In the main I would say Boucher’s opinions are quite unambiguous. One exception is perhaps his comment on Michael Innes’ Appleby’s End (1945), in which he describes the story as ‘caviar of the finest sort, with just enough pungent minced onion.’ I want to say he liked the book, though the pungent minced onion is baffling me…
However, one author Boucher never seemed to take to, regardless of how many times he gave her books a go, was Patricia Wentworth. Pilgrim’s Rest (1946) was ‘recommended to those with endless time and a fondness for gentle un-excitement’ whilst in his review for Silence in Court (1945) Boucher wrote: ‘Writing: alternately pleasant and dull. Plotting: the most outrageous offering of unfairness and false logic since the palmiest days of J S Fletcher.’ Meanwhile, when talking about The Key (1944) and The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944), Boucher comments upon the appearance of clichés in Wentworth’s work. In the former they are referred to as a ‘pleasing period collection of clichés,’ but regarding the latter Boucher concludes that:
‘If you tell your family you know who stole the papers and will wait alone in the study for his confession, you can jolly well expect to be murdered.’
I also don’t think Boucher warmed to Miss Silver very much, either describing her as ‘gentle’ or ‘mousy’. His most encouraging review was for She Came Back (1945): ‘Never much mystery, but somehow the most enjoyable of the quiet Miss Silver books to reach this department.’
John Rhode, who also wrote as Miles Burton, equally did not fare well in Boucher’s reviews. Death Invades the Meeting (1944) is described as a ‘typical Rhode, much of it absorbing in its stodgy way, but marred by an oddly inconclusive ending.’ Meanwhile with Death at Ash House (1942), Boucher writes that: ‘Inspector Arnold plods through the problem of the bashed secretary and at last catches up with the reader. Relentlessly painstaking – and giving.’ I don’t think Boucher out and out disliked Rhode’s work, but his praise is rather muted and at times backhanded. I was surprised he did not like Rhode’s novels more, as in his first monthly article, Boucher commented that he rated Freeman Wills Crofts-type novels highly. But maybe Rhode’s stories have less in common with Crofts’, than I imagine.
Shifting focus towards American mystery writers, Boucher was a big fan of Chandler’s work, even if he was not so keen on his thoughts about mystery fiction, (see my previous post). For instance, Boucher waxes lyrical in his review of The Lady in the Lake (1943):
‘What matters is the insight you get into the places he sees and the people he meets and the magnificent clean prose in which it’s all told. Chandler has taken the best of Hammett and added a touch of a poet like Kenneth Fearing. You won’t find a better hard-boiled mystery this year – nor many better novels, unqualified.’
Whilst when commenting on Five Sinister Characters (1945), which was a collection of four novelettes and a short story by Chandler, Boucher wrote that: ‘If in prose, characterisation, psychology, moods and sense of locale Mr Chandler doesn’t top nine out of any ten contemporary serious novelists, may I be Edmund Wilson.’ Interestingly Boucher does not seem to say anything about Chandler’s plotting…
When it comes to Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series and his Cool and Lam books, which he wrote under the penname A. A. Fair, Boucher seems to have enjoyed some more than others. One he particularly liked was Bats Fly at Dusk (1942), leading to a spot of wordplay: ‘Just about the best Fair yet; and the best Fair is the best fare.’ Elisabeth Sanxay Holding also elicited many favourable reviews such as this one for Net of Cobwebs (1945):
‘The trouble with reviewing Mrs Holding lies in her greatest virtue: her murderers are so well-conceived, so terribly plausible, that you want to talk about them and to hell with the mystery, cleverly contrived though it be. But since ethics forbid my expatiating on what will probably prove the most interesting killer of 1945, I can only say that this is another Holding masterpiece of suspense…’
One writing duo I was surprised Boucher enjoyed so much, were Frances and Richard Lockridge. In one review he wrote that: ‘It’s a major marvel how the Lockridges can consistently turn out books that are at once delightful zany comedies, sensitive novels of moods and manners and perfectly plotted detective stories.’ I have to admit my own opinion of the Lockridges does not correspond with Boucher’s. I can’t say I have read any book by them that demonstrates ‘perfect plotting’ so I was mildly astonished that Boucher felt he had. I agree that the Lockridges’ novels are ‘zany comedies,’ but Boucher’s preferences for such works seems quite unpredictable, as we will see in the next section.
However, not every giant of the American mystery market appealed to Boucher and his parting comment on Mary Roberts Rinehart The Yellow Room (1945) did make me smile: ‘Mrs Rinehart has still of course not bothered to learn the first principles of honest whodunit construction; after almost forty years of success without then, why should she?’
“A Few of My Favourite Things”: Boucher’s Thoughts on Some of my Favourite Writers
So back to the ‘zany comedies.’ Alongside the Lockridges, Boucher also loved the work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, who also wrote under the name Alice Tilton. Under this other name she published the book, Dead Ernest (1944), which Boucher called a ‘daffy delight.’ Unfortunately for me though Boucher was not a fan of the books produced by Constance and Gwenyth Little. He felt The Black Rustle (1943) was ‘wacky enough, but not especially believable,’ whilst in his review for The Black Honeymoon (1944), Boucher provides us with a read-between-the-lines reviews: ‘Many people find the Littles hilarious.’ Just don’t think he was one of them…
However, Boucher and I are on a better footing with one another when it comes to The Deadly Percheon (1946) by John Franklin Bardin, which we both enjoyed. In his review, Boucher claims he did not ‘believe a word of the ultimate solution, but the goings-on along the way make up the most astonishing and unputdownable first mystery in years.’ We both also liked the crime novels of C. S. Forester, and he felt Payment Deferred (1926) was an ‘important and neglected work,’ which was a forerunner to the novels of the 1930s by Francis Iles and Richard Hull. Whilst I have read Forester’s three psychological crime novels, I don’t see them mentioned on blogs very often, which is a shame, as it seems like they are still being overlooked.
Boucher’s time as a reviewer also covered the period in which Juanita Sheridan produced her first novel involving a Chinese female sleuth. It was called What Dark Secret (1943) and Sheridan’s dentist; Dorothy Dudley is also given co-author status. I read this book last year and felt it was weaker than Sheridan’s later Lily Wu novels, but still a good first book. Boucher seemed to think the same writing that: ‘Humour and atmosphere blend in promising debut, marred only by weak motivation.’
Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You: Boucher’s “Simon Cowell” Moments
You can’t love every book, can you? And Boucher was no different. However, more importantly for us, when Boucher did not like a book, his way of saying so was often amusing, if not hilarious. Many of these books featured new to me authors, yet given how bad some of them are, there may be a reason or two, why they’re now nearly forgotten…
First up, novels sometimes gained a lower rating, due to the unanticipated mysteries they provided. For example, Murder in False Face (1943) by George Childerness is described being ‘lively entertainment up to the explanation, which leaves everything a deeper mystery than before.’ Whilst Boucher was somewhat puzzled by the title of Doris Miles Disney’s book, A Compound for Death (1943), which he felt was the story’s deepest mystery. He also wrote that the ‘publishers call it a “chess puzzle,” but the reader is asked to play blindfolded.’
Books with a high snooze factor also find themselves with more negative reviews, unsurprisingly. One such example is Eden Phillpotts’ Flower of the Gods (1943) and I can’t say Boucher’s description of it has me rushing to find a copy:
‘Eccentric English botanist disappears upon receipt of rare Andean flower; after a year or so a solution is reached, with infinite talk and no action. A doctor’s prescription should be required for this powerful soporific.’
Annoying characters is another important factor, and I feel it is one we can easily identify with. Boucher takes a dim view of the detective in Clifford Knight’s The Affair of the Corpse Escort (1946), writing that: ‘I’ve yet to see that Rogers has any function as a detective beyond sitting around for 70,000 words and then bluntly accusing a man who kindly confesses.’ Then there are those female protagonists who get on your wick such as in Marjorie Carleton’s Cry Wolf (1945): ‘No [Gothic-Bronte-Du-Maurier] heroine ever before exhibited quite so little sense, and it’s hard to say whether the author’s notions of criminal psychology or her ideas of novelistic prose are more pitiful.’ Sometimes Boucher is at his funniest when he is at his most concise, as the last three words of this review for Ione Sandberg Schriber’s A Body for Bill (1942) make all the difference:
‘Sabotage in an Akron rubber plant imperils the fair secretary in a singularly confused story, rather like an Alice Tilton farce offered seriously. “In all my life,” complains Lieutenant Bill Grady, “I have never run into such a bunch of assorted idiots.” I’m not arguing.’
Plotting, cluing and solutions were also a common reason for Boucher not enjoying a book. One of the funniest instances of this is with Boucher’s review for Sidney E. Porcelain’s The Crimson Cat Murders (1946) in which he sympathises with the book’s victim: ‘Harriet led a hard enough life without suffering after death the padded and pointless investigations of detective Stephen Clay.’ Being a well-known author did not save you from having your plots criticised either, as Boucher was far from impressed by Phillpotts’ They Were Seven (1944):
‘Because he has a reputation as a serious novelist, critics invariably treat the mysteries of Eden Phillpotts with reverent awe. His characters are wooden, his dialogue is unspeakable, his books are endless and actionless and his plots are stupidly unfair; and this latest product of the Grand Old Man (now 83) differs from others only in being even longer. It will undoubtedly meet with a chorus of tactful praise, but I still say the Emperor has no clothes on.’
Lazy plotting also crops up in Boucher’s criticisms too. For example, according to him, the protagonist in Kerry O’Neil’s Ninth Floor: Middle City Tower (1943) , has too easy a ride: ‘Jerry Mooney is the modern Robin Hood of Philadelphia, which is nice work if all your antagonists are dolts and every coincidence breaks in your favour.’
Solutions in classic crime fiction can provoke a lot of debate, just ask any Carr fan, and Boucher was not keen on either too easy a solution, nor one which was too unbelievable. C W Grafton’s The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher (1944) is guilty of the first sin as Boucher writes that it is ‘based on so ancient and hackneyed a plot that the fan who hasn’t solved it all by page 30 should hand in his resignation.’ Whereas Elizabeth Jordon’s Herself (1943) demonstrates the second misdemeanour, amongst other literary crimes:
‘Date of action is given as 1938 – surely a misprint for 1908, when such dull and dated drivel might possibly have been bearable. “Solution” passes belief; my critical ethics have never been so strained as by the desire to reveal that… Well, it isn’t that the butler did it; what is the other unpardonable sin?’
Laziness also crops up in solutions, which Boucher identifies in Dean Hawkins’ Walls of Silence (1943):
‘After 200 Victory-format pages of Southern atmosphere and talk about a six-year-old murder, crammed with every cliché of plot and style, our hero tells each of five suspects that his guilt is discovered and he’d best commit suicide, so one of them does and that’s that.’
However, it is perhaps Puzzle in Paint (1943) by Samuel Melvin Kootz, which pains Boucher the most, commenting in his review that: ‘I cannot recall in the 102 ½ years of the mystery story such a flagrant example of the total suppression of all evidence until after the denouement.’
Mis-advertised novels are not a new phenomenon and from time to time such difficulties are brought up in Boucher’s reviews. For instance, he says in his assessment of Cecile Gilmore’s Feather of Doubt (1945) that:
‘The complex and lushly described loves of the American Bureau of Information staff in Tunis, noted here only because the publisher’s blurb tries to make out that it’s a spy-intrigue story.’
Boucher also calls publishers out when they over-egg an aspect of a book, such as with Richard Keverne’s Coroner’s Verdict: Accident (1944): ‘The publishers label it, so help me, as “Terror and Suspense”; I’m afraid they scare a lot easier than I do.’
These final few examples don’t really have a category as such, though they all certainly imply that the authors involved should think about a different career…
Cobwebs and Clues (1944) by Ernestine Malan & Alma K Ledig: ‘And so this column winds up 1944 with the dullest and most amateurish whodunit of the year, to be read only during tomorrow’s hangover when nothing matters anyway.’ (Boucher reviewed this title on 31st December 1944)
Blood on Nassau’s Moon (1945) by Walbridge McCully: ‘Anyone’s first novel may be bad and a second novel is proverbially so. But Miss McCully’s third makes it clear that she has settled down to a career of illiterate naivete.’
The Case of the Malevolent Twin (1946) by Lois Eby and John C Fleming: ‘Is the bold buccaneering financier himself or his sinister twin? Is Zachery Stone the great private detective or an imposter? Is the secretary as harmless as he seems? Will love conquer all? and unnumbered other questions including How did this get published?’
The Glass Heart (1946) by Marty Holland: ‘Tough creampuff, very soggy inside.’ (This review comment makes me wonder what it would be like if Mary Berry took to reviewing…)
The Fifth Dagger (1947) by Dorothy Quick: ‘We won’t talk about this. In five years of reviewing I have not seen a more subliterate novel from a major publishing house.’(Boucher’s reticence certainly leaves us wondering what made it so bad…)
“Curiouser and Curiouser!”: Miscellaneous Oddities
Here are a few unusual facts I came across through reading Boucher’s reviews:
- The first mystery novel to feature a pregnant detective was Another Toward Dying (1943) by Melba Marlett.
- Cortland Fitzsimmons’ Tied for Murder (1943) involves a first-aid aid class “victim” having their throat cut in a blackout.
- In Lucy Cores’ Corpse de Ballet (1944), an amateur sleuth is nearly wiped out in a bubble bath.
- Inez Oellrichs’ And Die She Did (1945) contains a sleuth who is a milkman called Matt Winters.
- Elisabet M. Stone’s Poison, Poker and Pistols (1946) features a doctor who is murdered with a curare-coated toothbrush.
“So Many Books, So Little Time”: Recommendations for my Fellow Bloggers
As I did in my review of the collection of Todd Downing’s reviews, I have come up with some recommendations for my blogging compatriots…
Dress to Impress
For the super stylish and fashionable Moira, who blogs at Clothes in Books we have:
- Lady in a Wedding Dress (1943) Susannah Shane
- Dark Prophecy a.k.a. Masked Murder (1945) by Marjorie Alan, in which murder does take place at a masked ball.
Locked Rooms and Impossible Crime Mysteries
Boucher’s reviews held a glut of such novels, so there are lots of obscure titles to recommend to locked room enthusiasts Ben (The Green Capsule), JJ (The Invisible Event) and Tomcat (Beneath the Stains of Time), amongst many others:
- The Case of the Curious Heel (1944) by Ken Crossen
- The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints (1945) by Ken Crossen
- Murder and the Virgin Bride (1944) by Brett Halliday, whose locked room murder Boucher particularly rated.
- The Saint’s Choice of Impossible Crime (1945)
- The Cuckoo Clock (1946) by Milton K Ozaki
- One of these Seven (1947) by Carolyn and Malcolm Logan in which an artist-auto-biographer is bumped off ‘in locked room to which seven celebrities hold keys.’
- The Shade of Time (1946) by David Duncan, in which ‘to prove his innocence of a past crime, Sebastian Sands reconstructs it and apparently commits murder again – by the same impossible method.’
Back to School
Bev who blogs at My Reader’s Blog has a fondness for academic mysteries, but also has a ridiculous supply of obscure books on her TBR mountain range. Hopefully one or two of these titles might not be on there:
- Murder Seeks an Agent (1947) by Wenzell Brown, which features Professor Aswell.
- Murder from the Mind (1946) by Patrick Laing, which features the blind Professor Patrick Laing.
- Blood is a Beggar (1946) by Thomas Kyd, in which a ‘professorial dullard [is] shot during [a] lecture…’
- Two Faced Murder (1946) by Jean Leslie in which Professor Peter Ponsonby must solve crime amongst academic scandal.
Globe Trotting Mysteries
Aidan who blogs at Mysteries Ahoy! often reviews titles from outside the UK and USA. You could say he gads about in his GAD reading! He also has reviewed some of Todd Downing’s work, which is largely set in Mexico, so I thought he might be interested in Dead Man in the Tomb (1946) by Rafael Bernal, which Boucher describes as a ‘must for connoisseurs.’
Aidan’s second, or perhaps I should greatest, mystery passion though is an inverted mystery:
- The Curate’s Crime (1946) by Sibyl Ericson, which Boucher describes as an ‘admirably deceptive blend of direct and “inverted” method…’
- The Swan Sang Once (1947) by Marjorie Carleton in which ‘Taynor and Iris Harrison, an apparently loving couple, are quietly plotting each other’s destruction. One of them is abundantly justified, but if evil were brought to justice his own integrity would be lost.’
Knowing the Puzzle Doctor’s fondness for historical mysteries, of which he has reviewed a number on his blog In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, I kept my eyes peeled for any good historical mysteries. Alas there were not many on offer and when the occasional one cropped up; Boucher’s comments did not urge you to buy it. However, one collection he did seem keen on was Lillian de la Torre’s Dr Sam Johnson, Detector (1946).
For JJ: V as in Victim (1945) by Lawrence Treat. Boucher’s write-up for this title made it sound like JJ’s cup of tea:
‘Mr Treat has created the most believable police professionals in American detective fiction; in its unpretentious way this may be an epoch-making book, marking a fresh new realistic approach to police procedure. Add the skill at puzzle construction and the deftness of psychological characterisation that have always marked Treat’s work…’
For JJ, Laurie, Tomcat and all the other Crofts Fans: Denis Scott’s The Beckoning Shadow (1946) which has a ‘timetable alibi to rejoice Inspector French himself.’
For Brad: Theatrical mysteries were also a bit thin on the ground, but despite its unlikely title, The Hill of the Terrified Monk (1943) by Geoffrey Homes is supposedly a theatrical mystery.
So all in all this collection was an equally entertaining and informative mine of information on mystery fiction from the 1940s. In fact, one of the reasons it has taken me so long to finish reading this book and write the review, was that every few paragraphs I would putting the book down to google an author or name. I have a few ideas of some books I might try and track down, though it was a bit disappointing when you look a book up and the cheapest copy is over £200. So if you notice a sudden spate of bank robberies, they have nothing to do with me… Thankfully getting yours hands on a copy of this brilliant review collection is much cheaper!