The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter N, and my nomination, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is …
NINE TIMES NINE by Anthony Boucher
This golden age mystery is one of several fine examples of the genre that, like Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat (1938) and Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding (1948), were inspired directly by the work of John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room / impossible crime story. In this particular case, the book is not only dedicated to Carr, but in fact has an entire chapter devoted to discussing one of his novels.
Nine Times Nine was written William Anthony Parker White (1911-68), better known as the critic and editor Anthony Boucher, but originally published under the pseudonym ‘H.H. Holmes’, the name used by a 19th century murderer that is also generally held to be the first properly documented serial killer (for more, see here). Set in LA in 1940 it is an intricately plotted locked room mystery that also has a lot of fun ridiculing the kind of religious groups that always seem to proliferate in California – as Lauren Bacall tells Paul Newman in HARPER, the adaptation of Ross Macdonald‘s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, ‘LA is the big league for religious nuts’, to which he quips back in return, ‘That’s because there’s nothing to do at night’. The generally mocking yet sinister depiction of the cult at the centre of the novel is counterbalanced to a certain extent however by the fact that the main detective of the story is Sister Ursula of the (fictitious) order of the Sisters of Martha of Bethany, a figure probably inspired by that other religious master investigator of paradoxical and impossible crimes, GK Chesterton’s Father Brown (who was a big influence on Carr of course). The religious dimension to the novel is fairly substantial in the sense that it permeates most of the plot but it is no obvious sense a spiritual novel – this is a detective story in which the detective and the heroine are devout Catholics (as was White / Boucher).
Matt Duncan is 27, atheist and a newly unemployed writer. One night, drinking his sorrows away at a bar he meets Gregory, an old companion from his University days who is feeling blue as his fiance Concha, from the rich and powerful Harrigan family, has decided to back out of their engagement to join a nunnery instead, following pressure from her devoutly Catholic father and aunt. After several more drinks they drive out to her home, but as Gregory is the worse for wear after too many drinks, it is Matt who goes to the house and demands to see Concha. Matt is soon kicked out unsurprisingly, but not before he meets Sister Ursula, and discovers that she has in fact been trying to dissuade Concha from joining the order rather than the other way round.
“Matt’s Heroic world turned several somersaults, ended with a neat double flip-up, and stood still.”
Matt leaves with his tail between his legs, but when he sees someone with a gun lurking in the shadows he quickly tackles him and earns the gratitude of Concha’s father, Wolfe Harrigan. The man he tackled turns out to be Hermann Sussmaul, aka Swami Virasenanda, a charlatan previously exposed by Wolfe, now trying to get his revenge. Wolfe is deeply religious and has dedicated his life to exposing religious fraudsters. After an amusing fireside chat, he decides to hire Matt to bring down ‘The Temple of Light’ and its leader – who claims to be Ahasver, the Wandering Jew! The following night Wolfe and Matt go to the Temple and witness the ‘Nine Times Nine’, in which the mysterious Ahasver, as ever wearing his distinctive yellow cloak and hood, calls on nine prophets, the likes of Christ, Confucius, Krishna and Plato, and the ‘nine’ who serve them (Cherrubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Dominations etc) to help bring an end to Communists everywhere (there is a lot of Commie bashing in this book) and also with the help of a large and near hysterical congregation to bring a curse on one man – Wolfe.
The next day the curse seems to be borne out – Matt is out in the garden as the sun sets talking with Wolfe’s brother when they look across the lawn and into the study through the french windows – and see a man in a yellow cloak. They rush to the main study door inside the house to surprise Ahasver but finding it locked they have to break in, to find no evidence of the man with the cloak – just Wolfe’s body, shot at point-blank range. All the all doors and windows were either locked securely or under constant supervision. Matters are further complicated when Wolfe’s will is revealed to limit his son’s access to his inheritance while giving Concha free rein. Matt quickly become the ‘inside man’ for Inspector Terry Marshall (who would later team up with Sister Ursula again in Boucher’s Rocket to the Moon, 1942) as he becomes more and more attached to the Harrigan clan, not least Concha, while also having to fight off renewed attacks from the Swami and an increasingly jealous Gregory, egged on by Concha’s spiteful brother. While Ahasver is eager to take credit for the murder and happily confesses, so as to gain maximum publicity for his cult and the power of the ‘Nine times Nine’, he also has a cast iron alibi, as does the Swami, who was with Sister Ursula at the time. She quickly determines who the murderer must be but there will be several more revelations before she is able to gather all the suspects together and explain how the murder was actually committed.
The highlight of the book is undoubtedly chapter 14, in which Marshall and Matt use John Dickson Carr’s ‘locked room lecture’ from The Hollow Man (1935) to try to determine how Wolfe can possibly have been killed. The eventual solution is indeed a variation of a comment made by Carr’s detective Gideon Fell in this chapter relating to a gimmick used in Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery. It’s a wonderful tribute to Carr and an ultra-typical touch of the kind of literary gamesmanship that was typical of Golden Age detective stories. On top of this comes a tribute to Boucher’s other favourite mystery writer in the form of an Ellery Queen-style ‘dying clue’ in which a dart is thrown into a copy of a history of William II, the son of William the Conqueror.
While the locked room mystery plays reasonably fair and is certainly ingenious, the dying-clue is pretty impossible to fathom and it is unclear just when the dart could have been thrown since the gunshot would have killed Wolfe instantaneously. This however is a small quibble in an otherwise enjoyable tribute to Carr, Queen and the ‘locked room’ mystery written by a man who clearly adored the genre. This is a golden age novel aimed knowingly and purposefully at lovers of the genre. Not a classic perhaps, but really entertaining none the less and containing that special glow that comes from having been published when the genre was at its zenith.
David Langford’s excellent introduction to Boucher and his novels, originally written for the Zomba omnibus (which is the edition I own), can be accessed online at: www.ansible.co.uk/writing/boucher.html
William F. Nolan’s brief but heartfelt tribute to Boucher, one of many, can be read online at: www.mysterynet.com/books/testimony/boucher/