Friday, August 29, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “Nine Times Nine,” by Anthony Boucher

(Editor’s note: This is the 21st installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Choosing a work this time is Jeffrey Marks. He’s the editor of several short-story collections, the concocter of two historical mysteries featuring Ulysses S. Grant, and the author of Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of the Screwball Mystery. Most recently, Marks is credited with writing Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography.)

While it sounds more like a math problem, Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine (1940) is really one of the best “forgotten” locked-room mysteries in the genre. Boucher also attempted a locked-room murder in The Case of the Solid Key (1941), but this novel is a much better effort on every level.

Even if it did not possess one of the most ingenious plots in the genre, this book introduced Sister Ursula, one of the few crime-fighting nuns in the genre. Ursula, whose father was a police detective, had planned to go into law enforcement as well before illness ruined her plans. Joining the convent had been a second choice, but one she followed just as passionately as crime-solving.

As with Boucher
s other books, this novel is heavily indebted to mystery and true crime. The author used the pseudonym “H.H. Holmes” for his two Ursula novels. While many readers thought this an homage to Sherlock, instead Boucher was using the alias of Herman Mudgett, a well-known serial killer.

Sadly, Sister Ursula appears in only two novels (the other one being 1942’s Rocket to the Morgue) and a handful of short stories. Boucher went on to write science-fiction short stories after the second novel, a way to earn faster money for his growing family. He would never write another mystery novel following his two Ursula books, though he returned to the genre by writing radio plays for The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and later reviewing mysteries for The New York Times.

Despite the use of an ingenious locked-room mystery in Nine Times Nine, the plot is relatively simple. Wolfe Harrigan, a devout Catholic who debunks religious cults, is discovered murdered in a locked room in his home moments after the cult leader was seen in that room with him. All of the windows and doors to the chamber were either locked or under constant observation, leaving the cult leader as the sole suspect. The cult leader, Ashavar, had been under investigation by Harrigan; as a result, Ashavar had placed a curse called the Nine Times Nine on Harrigan. Suspicion for the crime immediately falls on Ashavar, even though everyone in the Harrigan family had ample motive for the crime.

Beyond the fascinating heroine and the cult leader, Boucher’s sidekicks are well-rounded characters as well. Lieutenant Marshall, the investigating police officer, is a former football player and scholar turned police detective, “six-feet-two in height, a hundred and ninety pounds in weight, ruggedly homely in features, and already a trifle gray in hair.”

Marshall’s wife, Leona, is a former burlesque performer and model who has given up her career for domestic bliss with her husband. Even with her beauty, she is an intellectual who quickly sums up parts of this rather complicated case. In her own summary of Nine Times Nine, Boucher’s editor, Marie Rodell, called the scenes with Marshall and his wife some of the best in the book. The human elements are meshed effortlessly with the rather demanding puzzle elements. Unlike Boucher’s Fergus O’Breen novels (including The Case of the Solid Key and 1942’s The Case of the Seven Sneezes), only one solution is presented, a more emotionally satisfying ending. Matt Duncan, Harrigan’s secretary, and Concha, Harrigan’s young niece, fall in love and plan their life together. That marriage looms large in the sequel to Nine Times Nine, Rocket to the Morgue.

Boucher’s locked-room mysteries are heavily indebted to those who had gone before. Chapter 14 of Nine Times Nine, for instance, features a discussion of the locked-room problem in the mystery genre, and specifically in terms of John Dickson Carr’s well-known examination of locked-rooms that appeared in his 1935 novel, The Three Coffins. As Boucher’s The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) had paid homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes, Nine Times Nine offers deference to Carr’s Dr. Fell. In fact, the book itself is dedicated to Carr. Boucher was careful with the details and got Carr’s written permission to use the rather lengthy excerpt before its appearance in Nine Times Nine.

Boucher, with his incisive manner, paraphrased Dr. Fell’s lecture in a succinct way through the characters of Lieutenant Marshall and his wife, Leona. In what I think are some of the best passages in this book, the married couple paraphrase in a matter of a few sentences what Carr took chapters to explain. The Marshalls read up on locked-room mysteries in order to try to solve the case at hand. However, it’s Sister Ursula who finally comes up with the solution through her understanding of right and wrong, rather than the mechanics of the crime.

With its focus on the plot, the reader should not be shocked to learn that Anthony Boucher had come up with a new locked-room solution, one that Carr had not covered when he put together his famous treatise on the subject.

Sadly, Nine Times Nine is out of print today, but it can be found on the shelves of many used book stores. It’s a forgotten classic that really needs to be remembered.


David Cranmer said...

I enjoy old mystery series that have only a few installments. Usually they are perfect little gems... and a crime-fighting nun sounds entertaining. Since I spend a large part of my life in used book stores, I'll be on the lookout. The Herman Webster Mudgett bio was fascinating.

Graham Powell said...

Apparently there was an omnibus containing NINE TIMES NINE, ROCKET TO THE MORGE, and two others titled THE CRUMPLED KNAVE and THE CASE OF THE SEVE ON CALVARY. And it's checked in at the local library!

Anonymous said...

I have read "Nine Times Nine" several times, with great enjoyment each time. I look forward to reading it several more times.

Anonymous said...

Good article, Jeff, to which I'll append an "Amen!" Nine Times Nine should definitely be on the must-read list of any fan of impossible crime stories.

Anonymous said...

This is an exceptionally thoughtful and informative article!
"Nine Times Time" is a rich and interesting book. Lots of good fiction was written by Anthony Boucher, both mysteries and science fiction. He is an author greatly in need of revival today.