Friday, March 4, 2011

The Case of the Solid Key (1941) - Anthony Boucher

One of the reasons I love reading vintage mysteries is that I learn so many odd facts. The most recent tidbit: apparently the gums shrink in the mouth of a corpse after an extended period of time. This may well have been covered on an episode of one of the many versions of the CSI dynasty, but I doubt it. It's too low tech and not disgusting enough for CSI. The best vintage mysteries (in my reading it tends to be the Americans more than the Brits) are chock full of these nuggets of arcane information.

These days killers may dress in lint free coveralls and cover their crime scenes in plastic sheeting for easy disposal of blood, hair, fibers and other pesky detritus that might give them away. Or they may pour gallons of bleach over the crime scene to eradicate that troublesome genetic info left behind. Gone are the days when a murderer had to use his ingenuity to mislead or cover up a crime. Now it's all about science. That's right I'm blaming DNA technology for ruining crime fiction. And especially for putting a damper on writers' imaginations. Give me a corpse with shrunken gums so a murderer can shove a set of someone else's dentures in the mouth and have the corpse misidentified. That's misdirection! Did I say not disgusting enough for CSI? I take that back.

Somewhere Fergus O'Breen picked up this fact of gums shrinking after death and relays it to his Watson Norman Harker, a budding playwright from Oklahoma, and the ever exasperated Lt. A. Jackson in his penultimate adventure The Case of the Solid Key. The corpse in question -- which may or may not be sporting its own dentures -- is discovered in the locked theatrical workroom where the victim had been experimenting with fire effects. Unfortunately, the fire effect seems to have exploded rendering the face utterly unrecognizable – thus the need to resort to dental records for identification. The victim is Rupert Carruthers, a shady theater owner who financed the company through extortion. The suspects are a motley group of actors and actresses, the stage manager, the company manager and a playwright.

This is a theater mystery. With actors and actresses in the list of suspects the reader should be on the lookout for impersonation, insincere emotions, volatile temperaments and plenty of heavy drinking. It's also a theater situated in Hollywood and many of the actors have motion picture careers on their minds. Fergus O'Breen's sister Maureen just happens to be a publicity agent at Metropolis Pictures. The movie studio and Maureen play a secondary but integral role in an unusual subplot involving one of the actresses with whom Norman is smitten.

This is yet another example of a detective novel with multiple solutions and one in which the detective gets it all wrong. Fergus realizes too late that he overlooked a rather obvious fact which shifted all the other evidence making his rather brilliant solution nothing more than one of his fanciful theories. There is a lot of banter between Lt. Jackson and O'Breen about the difference between police work and private eye sleuthing. Jackson even reveals he's rather well read in detective fiction:

"I'll admit," said Jackson, "that Rupert Carruthers was asking for murder. On purely psychological grounds, maybe this looks like a murder case, but the physical evidence is too strong the other way."
"Too strong is right. It's so strong it smells. No natural death could ever be so congoddamedclusively natural."
Jackson grinned. "You've been reading Chesterton again. Bad influence."
Later, just to rile O'Breen, Jackson does a little role reversal:
"In the meantime, Fergus, let me call your attention to one fact: there's only one conceivable advantage that that solid key has over an ordinary key."
"And that is?"
"That,"said Lt Jackson, "is its disadvantage."
"Hey! Fergus protested. "I'm supposed to be the brilliant if eccentric sleuth that makes cryptic remarks. Remember?"
"Sorry, I could not resist it."
I liked this thoroughly American mystery novel. I've been reading far too many Brits with far too many plots about someone who makes the fatal mistake of announcing he is changing his will in front of all his heirs. It was a refreshing change to have a story about acting and the movie business, scenes set in coffee shops and bars, jokes about comic books and Lifebuoy soap, and a rambunctious detective swearing up a storm with tongue twisting conglomerations like the one above. (But I tried it. Just not natural, not at all something that comes trippingly off the tongue.)

from the DJ of The Compleat Werewolf
The Fergus O'Breen books are breezy, clever and pretty tricky to boot.  I'd suggest you keep your eyes peeled for one of the many paperback editions of any of the five titles. For your book hunting pleasure they are all listed below.

Fergus O'Breen Novels
The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939)
The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940)
The Case of the Solid Key (1941)
The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942)

Short story collections
The Compleat Werewolf (1969) - two short stories w/ O'Breen
Far and Away (1955) - one story w/ O'Breen


  1. I have them all but Knave and Key. I'll have to go seeking again. I couldn't read Boucher's mysteries as a steady diet - even if there were enough to do so - but occasionally they are a lot of fun, as you point out. Thanks for this review.

  2. I've enjoyed every Boucher mystery I've read (the first three) and have the Solid Key & Seven Sneezes on my list of TBO (To Be Owned). This looks like another good one!

    (I responded to your comment on my Talbot review btw...)

  3. Got this one added to the Review site. Bring on the updates!

  4. [Andy]

    I read the Boucher books about 20 years ago, and really enjoyed them. But that's all I remember about them. I had collected them all, but lost them in Hurricane Katrina in '05 (guess they are in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere!)

  5. [Andy]

    John --- I noticed on some other blog, you were reading Frederic F. van de Water's "Hidden Ways". Was just wondering if that was a book worth seeking out. Tbanks, Andy

  6. Andy -

    I may have mentioned that I OWNED Hidden Ways at one point. It was, in the fact, the first Dell Mapback I ever purchased. Isn't odd the things you remember about books in your collection? I no longer have it, though. I sold a lot of my Mapbacks at Bouchercon 2005 when it was held in Chicago. That was one that went. I may have read it, but can't be certain. Very vaguely I recall it being more of a thriller or suspense novel than a detective novel. A pursuit story? Someone being chased by spies? It's all hazy. Sorry.

  7. I read Hidden Ways a few months ago and it's not a pursuit story or spy thriller, but a bland detective yarn in which a young man is employed by an elderly, wheelchair bound, woman who needs help writing her scandalous family biography. He also dons the deerstalker when the corpse of an unknown man turns up in the apartment across hers.

    Some of characters are interesting enough and there's an excellent fencing scene, but the plot lacks ingenuity and a clever solution.

  8. I'm with you on the deleterious effects of science on crime fiction. I'm old-fashioned. Give me a game of wits with great characters and dialogue and red herrings galore. Perhaps my negative reaction to science is just a reflection of my failure to understand any scientific principles. Except gravity. Yep, I get gravity. DNA, not so much.

  9. [Andy]

    Thanks, TomCat!! Appreciate the feedback!!!

  10. It's really too bad Boucher found other things to do besides write mystery novels, isn't it? Only five and that's all there were.

    If anyone's a fan of the old-fashioned detective novel, they really oughtn't to miss any of them. As you say, it's lucky they came out in paperback. I'm sure the hardcover editions, in dust jacket, are quite pricey.

  11. Steve -

    I've never seen a single Boucher book in the original Simon & Schuster edition with a DJ. I have seen TCOT Baker Stret Irregulars many times without one, though. And TCOT Seven of Calvary was reissued by Macmillan and I've seen that one with a DJ. Next time I get a Dunn & Powell catalog I'll look and see what Steve & Bill would charge for one. I'm sure they have at least one and I'm betting it's $125 or more.

  12. A quick glance on ABE says you can buy copies in the $50 and up range, but either the jackets are worn or the book itself is (or both). Second printings with DJ's can be obtained for quite a bit less. For example, how does eight dollars for a second printing of BAKER STREET, VG in jacket, sound?