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Locked Room Reviews:
A Critic’s Heartfelt Tribute
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‘Nine Times Nine’ by Anthony Boucher is a difficult novel to pigeon hole. At one level it is simply a very enjoyable and well crafted action-mystery-romance with a great locked room twist. At another level, it is clearly a quite remarkable portrait of ‘looney’ Californian society on the brink of WWII. Read in yet another way, this book is all about defining the nature of truth and illusion; about finding a happy balance between cold logic and emotive faith. However, perhaps above all else, this book is quite simply an overt tribute to that master storyteller of the locked room genre, John Dickson Carr. An entire chapter and innumerable references are dedicated to a faithful discussion of Dr. Fell’s locked room lecture from Chapter 17 of ‘The Hollow Man’ (1935) (AKA: ‘The Three Coffins’). This makes this mystery a clear fan favourite for all Carr lovers, and, if this is not sufficient, there is also a great pointing finger clue left by the dying victim, which is reminiscent of that other great locked room detective, Ellery Queen.
Though this volume was originally published under the pseudonym H.H. Holmes, (the name of a 19th century serial killer), it was actually written by William Anthony Parker White (1911-1968), far better known as the critic and editor Anthony Boucher. Today, Boucher is primarily remembered as a prolific sci-fi author and editor, but he also played a very significant role in the development of the mystery genre, writing seven novels, several classic short stories (the best of which are collected in Exeunt Murderers – 1983), and most of the radio scripts for The Adventures of Ellery Queen, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and his own series featuring Gregory Hood. Boucher’s first detective, Fergus O’Breen, was modelled as a West Coast Ellery Queen with an Irish brogue and an affinity for Hollywood. ‘The Case of the Solid Key’ (1941), written just after Nine Time Nine, is often considered to be the best of this series.
Yet it was as a mystery critic that Boucher really made his mark on the genre. He began working for The San Francisco Chronicle in 1942, with his column later expanded to the Chicago Sun Times and the New York Herald Tribune. His career reached a pinnacle when he began to write reviews for the New York Times Book Review in 1951. This work eventually earned him three Edgars and a stint as president of the Mystery Writers of America. In his day, Boucher was generally recognized as the nation’s foremost authority on crime fiction, with a legendary influence on book sales. He was, by far, the most popular and prolific mystery reviewer, right up until his death in 1968. Which should all hopefully explain to a younger generation, why the world’s largest mystery convention is still called BoucherCon!
‘Nine Times Nine’ is set in Boucher’s much beloved pre-war LA, and takes clear aim at all those odd, often plain ridiculous, religious cults that seem to find such fertile ground beneath the warm California sun. The narrator and hero of this locked room classic is Matt Duncan, age 27, of no fixed religion, a Carr style protagonist, who is still living out the last months of the Great Depression in a shabby hotel, struggling to get his daily three squares. To make matters even worse, he has just lost his job as a writer for the WPA, a Roosevelt Era make work project. Fortunately, during a night of drowning his sorrows, he runs into a former frat pal from his pre-crash university life, the rather unsympathetic Gregory Randall, and soon becomes involved in our story as a tipsy knight errant intent on saving Gregory’s fiancé from packing herself off to a nunnery. At first he succeeds only in badly embarrassing himself by gaining an interview with the wrong lady, but as he slowly skulks away into the rainy night, he suddenly runs into a more solid shadow, the fake Swami Mahopadhyaya Virasenada. The Swami has just made a rather inept attempt to murder Wolfe Harrington, author and professional exposer of phoney religious cults, and also the father of the would be nun. The wealthy Harrigan gratefully invites Matt in for a drink before the roaring fire, and before the night is done, hires the young writer as his new literary assistant. Thanks to Sister Ursula, of the order of Martha of Bethany, a very practical nun and wannabe detective, Greg’s one time girlfriend, Concha Harrington, is soon dissuaded from joining the convent – and easily caught on the rebound by Matt, when he moves into the comfortable Harrigan home. This proves extremely popular with the lively, part-Hispanic, Concha, though the other members of the household, Wolfe’s sister Ellen, his brother R. Joseph, and his rather nasty son, Arthur, in varying degrees, are less impressed by the arrival of this newcomer.
Matt’s first task as literary assistant involves accompanying Wolfe on a trip to a meeting of his latest target – The Children of Light. This cult is led by a very odd figure, the bearded, yellow-robed, Ahasver, who claims to be the immortal wandering Jew, reads from blank pages, and occasionally rails against communism. However, on this particular night, something special has been arranged! Ahasver leads the congregation in ‘The Nine Times Nine’, a deadly curse backed by the nine ancients (Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Elijah, Daniel, Saint Germaine, Joseph, Plato, & Krishna) and their nine powers (Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels & Angels) – and the target of this threat is none other than Wolfe Harrington! It is already becoming quite clear that this is not your standard looney cult. It is quickly expanding into the political realm, taking in a ton of cash, and developing hundreds of fanatical adherents, but Wolfe still refuses to take more than the most basic common sense precautions, as he refuses to accept any possibility of a supernatural threat.
It takes less than twenty four hours for Wolfe to be proved wrong. The next afternoon, Matt looks up from his croquet game with Concha, to see a figure in the distinctive yellow robe inside Wolfe Harrington’s study. The French windows and door are both securely locked from within, and Ellen Harrigan, a fervent Catholic, has been praying in the chapel, just outside the only door by which anyone could have entered or left the study. It seems quite impossible that the yellow clad assailant could have escaped, but by the time Matt returns for a second glance through the window, Harrigan is lying dead on the floor of the study, killed by a shot to the head, and the man in the yellow robe is nowhere to be found. It is a wonderfully tight locked room plot, that allows for little fruitful speculation, and the reader will not be surprised to discover that Ahasver openly admits he did the deed – in his astral body – while simultaneously speaking in front of 108 witnesses!
Lieutenant Terrance Marshall of the LAPD arrives to investigate this seemingly impossible crime. Marshall is not exactly your average noir big city cop. He is a former Rhodes scholar who attended Oxford, and initially he clearly doubts the veracity of the witnesses, only to slowly become increasingly frustrated when he cannot poke a hole in this absurd evidence. He more or less adopts Matt, as his inside man, and later invites him home for a working dinner, with his much beloved wife, Leona, a retired burlesque dancer, mother of their young child, and an avid John Dickson Carr fan. Leona is currently reading ‘The Hollow Man’ (AKA: ‘The Three Coffins’), the novel which contains Dr. Fell’s famous locked room lecture. After a welcome dinner, Matt and Marshall sit down with Dr. Fell and make a valiant attempt to apply this lecture as a potential blueprint for defining how this supposedly impossible disappearance was rigged. Unfortunately, they are unable to find any possible solution, despite Fell’s expert help, largely because they are too tied to believing the evidence of their eyes. Many locked room fans will recognize their basic error (Clue: Fell was referring to The Chinese Orange Mystery), but all Matt and Marshall succeed in doing is to prove that the case is actually impossible!
However, Matt and Marshall are not the only detectives working this case. Sister Ursula, who tends to keep her own counsel, has a slightly more open definition of truth, and is therefore the one who stays closest to the trail. This nun is a rather fiercely independent and logical contemplative, whose father was a police detective. She had once planned to go into law enforcement, until a major illness intervened and the convent called, but it has quite clearly done little to quench her desire to detect. Sister Ursula gradually proves to be the most formidable detective, though, oddly, she is not really a major character, with only a few rather brief appearances prior to giving her solution to this amazing locked room plot. She is the only one to see the fatal fault in the locked room – almost right from the beginning. The only one to understand those critical actions of Ellen – which Marshall clearly missed. And then there is that all important Queen style dart – thrown into a copy of a history of William II, by the victim near the moment of death – a rather obscure reference which passes over the heads of the others, but does not slip past this very astute nun. Unfortunately, this wonderful detective, as well as Lt. Terry Marshall, both appear only in this novel and Rocket to the Morgue (1942), as well as a handful of short stories.
This complex locked room tale unravels at a breathless pace, but without giving a serious spoiler alert, there is little more that can be revealed – as it would be a real crime to mess up your enjoyment of this novel.
While this book is a rousing good adventurous tale, it is not without a deeper edge. Much of the story quietly questions the logic of religion and the relative advantages and disadvantages of a life of faith. Boucher was apparently a fairly devout Catholic, and clearly sets the example of Sister Ursula’s spiritual life, and the faith of Ellen and Concha, against the empty belief system of the other Harrigan’s, and both these values, against the fanatical beliefs of ‘The Children of Light’, who are transformed into zealous, hateful, zombies by the cruel, false faith of Ahasver. The cult is generally mocked by the less religious men, while treated as a question of evil by the more faithful women. It is a subtle difference, but Boucher still makes an important point. How should we treat such insanity? With threats of public exposure or as an evil that calls for a deeper spiritual response?
There is also a clear comparison of the comfort found in the faith of Ursula and Ellen, with the anger and crass dependence on ‘things’ and ‘power’, which is so evident in the lives of R. Joseph, Arthur, and Greg. In the middle of this debate is Matt, who has done without much of anything for a long time, but soon comes to value the example of Marshall’s domestic bliss over the artificial trappings of the Harrigans. This acts as a powerful emotive driver in his growing relationship with the lovely Concha, as he slowly comes to appreciate that a lack of love, far more than an absence of physical things, is what has actually kept him mired in poverty for so many years. It is a very lightly laid theme, but constantly and insistently repeated – which makes it quite difficult to ignore!
Closely tied to these semi-religious themes is the question of what constitutes truth. Can we believe the evidence of our eyes or is perception always open to the threat of illusion? Does the ultimate truth involve a level of faith and mystery – or do logic and facts stand alone? The murder brings all these questions to the forefront for each character, with Sister Ursula’s acceptance of both faith and logic set as the Boucher exemplar. Boucher is clearly arguing that real life and individual freedom involve far more than cold reason – some emotive mystery must be part of any viable balance. Evil, for Boucher, is actually quite real, but not in the traditional sense of the word. Boucher’s evil is more closely tied to our modern loss of social identity. We have all become Californians, ripped out of some meaningful Midwest, separated from from faith, family, and belonging, and finally handed over to the false prophets. The cult merely symbolizes all of these identity killers, acting as false faith, false family, false spirituality, false government – in other words, the big lie!
Boucher also does a masterful job of recreating the Carr style of comedy. This book lurches between the ridiculous and the tragic in an amazingly rapid two step dance. Passage after passage demonstrates an incredible sense of humour that will force most to surrender to its irresistible charm. In the end, the whole novel takes on the air of a bit of a farce, which is what allows Boucher, the great mystery critic who has lambasted countless other novels for a lack of plausibility, to get away with a plot that often really stretches the reader’s credulity. Are all those imitations really possible? Could such a complex plot really be pulled off? And when was that dart thrown? These would be major strikes against most mysteries, but Boucher simply sweeps these questions aside by completely winning over his reader!
Another point that must be briefly noted is the character of Robin Cooper. We must remember that the date is 1940, and few mystery authors would have included a homosexual character! Robin Cooper may be a rather unattractive stereotype, an effeminate “swish” who’s in deep cahoots with Ahasver, but in a novel of this era his very presence is actually quite remarkable! And Boucher then takes this one step further, via Marshall, when he sidesteps the usual homophobic reaction, instead choosing to portray this demeanour as an obvious facade designed to hide more serious offences. “The stupid tendency of the normal male is to discount everything said or done by one who seems effeminate. You think, ‘Nuts, he’s a swish – the hell with him.’ It’s about as clever a front as you can pick. Smart lad, our Robin.” (p 286) Boucher makes good use of his cutting wit throughout this novel, to portray our modern Californian culture as more than a little eccentric, as a land that has lost its way in the face of momentary fads and temporary crazes, and the gay culture is granted no immunity from this rather ruthless judgement.
So what kind of a verdict should we pass on ‘Nine Times Nine’? This novel is an extremely well plotted locked room mystery with numerous twists and turns, that makes it difficult to figure out all the details, though the basic locked room device will be obvious to many fans from quite an early point. The most important point is to recognize the quality of Boucher’s writing, that incredible ability to pace back and forth from serious mystery to near farce at the drop of a hat, without ever letting the tension relax. Boucher is, without a doubt, one of the finest craftsmen to ever turn his hand to the genre, and also such a knowledgable mystery critic that many of his references will pass right over the heads of many readers. It is also an incredible tribute to Carr and Queen, that will appeal to every locked room fan – all written by a fan that loved the genre just as much as we do! Who would dare quibble over minor flaws in the midst of such tribute? Perhaps a true critic? Makes you wonder how Boucher might have reviewed this book, doesn’t it? But, as far as I am concerned – though it may have a few minor warts – it is still a five star beauty!
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