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/
Sounds interesting – what’s the rest of Boucher’s output like?
Hi there – Boucher wrote seven novels in all, all inspired to some extent by Queen and Carr and feature either locked rooms or cryptic dying clues – one of the more amusing is THE CASE OF THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS which, like Julian Symons’ A THREE PIPE PROBLEM is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche centred around the adaptation of the original stories (TV series in the latter, movie in the former) – Boucher would later write original Holmes stories for radio (and Ellery Queen ones too, in collaboration with Manfred Lee). Boucher wrote quite a few short stories, mainly science fiction though he wasn’t averse to combining the two as in ‘Elsewhen’ which is a locked room mystery that uses a time machine! ROCKET TO THE MOON, the second and last Sister Ursula story, has lots of jokes about pulp writers and the science fiction community. His books are clever, urbane and witty and well worth looking out for – I really recommend the Zomba ‘black box’ edition which combines four of his best (but not IRREGULARS unfortunately).
Sergio – An excellent choice for “N!” To me it’s so interesting just how far-reaching Carr’s influence was. What I find interesting is that an interest in “impossible” mysteries seems to ebb and flow. It was an incredibly popular scenario when this novel was written; I wonder whether we will see another surge soon…
Hi Margot – thanks for very much for reading. I started reading Carr around 1981-82 (in Italy, where classic ‘Golden Age’ mysteries have always remained popular), coincidentally just when Doug Greene was paving the way with his anthologies of Carr”s works and introductions for reprints at International Polygonics and for a few years there was a real buzz in the 80s as some many of his books came back into print. It then faded away, perhaps inevitably though the TV show JONATHAN CREEK again seemed to renew interest in the impossible crime genre. I know what you mean about it being a bit cyclical and Jeffery Deaver’s kind of ingenuity seems to be of a similar type, though I’m no expert. I will say, it seems to me that in looking at the kind of responses to the Alphabet crime, it seems that Nordic and Golden Age mysteries are the ones that go down the best (poor Ed McBain)! By the way, I tried mightily to comment on your excellent NINE TAILORS review but I don’t think I managed to succeed (Gmail and WordPress don’t seem to always get on) so I am going to try one more time but with a Gmail account this time!
I’m so glad you highlighted this one. It’s been ages since I read it (on loan from an very tiny, but incredibly well-stocked–particularly in mysteries–public library). I have it on my list of TBO (To Be Owned) books that I hunt for on my used bookstore rambles. Thanks for reminding me of it!
Hello Bev, and thanks as always for reading and for posting! In the 1980s Zomba books in the UK put out several of these collections, with volumes dedicated to such noir authors Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, Marc Behm and Fredric Brown but then had this splendid collection devoted to Boucher which was a wonderful surprise and I’ve always been grateful that I was able to track down a copy – I highly recommend David Langford’s expert article on Boucher which I linked to above as it is also a very smart analysis on the golden age locked room mystery phenomenon (and its passing) as a whole.
Thanks for this contribution to the CFA this week Sergio. Many of this week’s contributions do remind us there is some really reading to be found in these old classics.
Hello Kerrie, and thanks for continuing to let us all play in your sandbox! It’s wonderful to get such a sense of the sheer variety of material out there, not to mention a little bit intimidating.
I read this one last summer and found it very entertaining. The tribute to JDC was very welcome and I actually understood the significance of the business with the dart! Usually these things manage to flummox me.
I also have the IPL edition of Rocket to the Morgue on my shelves and must get around to reading it.
Hi Colin, I know what you mean with those kinds of plots – I love them dearly but I also tend to get a bit passive when reading traditional detective stories since I don’t usually want to compete with the author, I just want to be surprised! Rocket is great fun, especially if you’re into the SF of the late 30s and early 40s with so many characters based on SF magazine authors like Henlein and (shudder) L. Ron Hubbard.
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I enjoyed this one, but I had somewhat built it up in my mind as being better, because of its reputation. It was good, not great.
I prefer Irrrgulars, but I’ll read any (non SF) Boucher I can get my hands on.
Thanks Shady – ys, I think i would probably agree with you on the whole – I can’t say it has lingered much in my memory
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