There's a Key

Californian science-fiction writer, anthologist, reviewer and author of seven detective novels and numerous short stories William Anthony Parker White, known better under his penname Anthony Boucher (which rhymes with voucher), was one of the most important figures in the genre, perhaps only second to Fredric Dannay, whose critique and insightful comments on the works of his fellow composers in crime were especially significant – and which are still heavily consulted today by readers and historians alike.

He also appears to have been an admirable and multiple talented human being, who, despite lifelong health problems culminating in an early death, enjoyed life to the fullest and only had something bad to say about Mickey Spillane (LOL!) – and what better way to squeeze as much enjoyment out of life as humanly possible than by plotting and writing detective stories?

There's definitely a lot to enjoy about The Case of the Solid Key (1941), which features his redheaded shamus, Fergus O'Breen, who was created as a West Coast version of Ellery Queen, however, he's much closer to your typical gumshoe than the brilliant amateur reasoners of Ellery's ilk.

The majority of the plot focuses on what goes on at Carruthers Little Theater, a small theatrical company dedicated solely to selling contracts of young and upcoming actors and writers to Hollywood agents, but the opening act takes place in a restaurant where Norman Harker, an aspiring playwright, saves one of their actresses, with whom he promptly falls in love, from an embarrassing situation by paying her bill. One thing leads to another and the next thing he knows he's neck-deep in the muck and none of it seems to stick.

There's no discernible reason why Rupert Carruthers, the manager director of the place, should produce an awfully bad play, entitled The Soul Has Two Garments, by one Lewis Jordan, a shabby old man with a turbulent past, or why a detective from homicide is poking him about a 13-year-old murder case and why Fergus O'Breen is snooping around the place in the guise of a wishful actor. Of course, with a detective in the middle of it all it doesn't take very long for the inevitable corpse to rear its ugly and badly burned head – found inside a workshop with all doors and windows securely locked from the inside.

It's a very readable story that offers the reader a picture of Hollywood of the 1940s, and the struggle of young talent to make a name for themselves in this world, as well as an interesting problem in which the clues are, perhaps, a bit thinly spread around, but they're enough for the observant reader the piece together most of the solution before Boucher produces a neat little twist on an old trick – resulting in an ending that you can both "solve" and still be surprised at. No mean feat!

The solution to the locked room problem, on the other hand, has an overly simplistic solution, but the reason why the key had to have a solid handle was quite clever and one feels it could've contributed to the book being more well known, especially among locked room fan boys like myself, if the trick had a bit more imagination and originality to it.

All in all, a solid effort by a writer who was better known and praised for his critical work than his writing, but showed some true craftsmanship by springing a surprise or two on the reader with a relatively simple plot.

And on a side note: after my enthusiastic start on this blog my output will probably trickle down a bit in the weeks to come, but please continue checking back here regularly for updates and I will try to vary the subjects of my posts in the near future (i.e. not just reviews).


  1. Darn you! I had this book reviewed last week and was tweaking it in my drafts. You beat me to it. Not only that - same exact edition. Ah, well.

    My review is more about the very American aspects of the writing in contrast to the British books I had been reading. I loved the odd way O'Breen created swear words, for instance.

    Have you read the H.H. Holmes books Boucher wrote? The impossible crime and locked room elements in those were far more ingenious. Although many love Nine Times Nine and include it in the "Top Ten" of locked room novels, I think it's preposterous in an eye-rollingly bad way. It's like the staging of the locked room in The Chinese Orange Mystery which relies on luck more than the laws of physics.

  2. Yes, I read the H.H. Holmes books and liked Nine Times Nine, but thought the murderer was very lucky that the locked room trick worked perfectly the first time it was tried – and in front of witnesses, too! However, I'm less than enthusiastic about Rocket to the Morgue, which is easily one of the worst and most disappointing locked room mysteries I have ever read! Its only redeeming quality was its depiction of a 1940s SF community, but that's only of interest to SF fans and historians of popular fiction/culture.

    My favorite Boucher's thus far are the excellent short story collection Exeunt Murderers (Nick Noble!) and The Case of the Seven Sneezes (even though it's riddled with tropes, e.g. cut-off rocky islet setting).

  3. So wait....you have ginger hair TomCat? 0_o

  4. No, whatever gave you that idea? I was talking about Boucher's redheaded detective, Fergus O'Breen.

  5. Okay, here we go. You said:

    "There's definitely a lot to enjoy about The Case of the Solid Key (1941), which features his redheaded shamus,"

    You say how there is a lot to enjoy about and then subsequently point out the protagonist is redheaded. This led me to believe that you found some enjoyment in the fact that he is redheaded. Now......what people would like their lead character to have ginger hair? Quite simple, ginger haired people themselves. ;)

  6. Just finished this one. A little slow moving for the first 70 pages, and then it really takes off. The locked-room trick isn't dazzling, but there's a lot of ingenuity in the book. I also like the characters. The chapter where the hero and heroine have a nice day at the funfair doesn't really have anything to do with the puzzle, but it has true warmth.

  7. Great to hear you enjoyed the book, Sexton Blake!

    The locked room was overly simplistic, but I liked the gag about the solid handle of the key and the book is just a joy to read. The Case of the Seven Sneezes is also recommendable and has one of my favorite (dark) comic bits in any detective story. It's also purposely old-fashioned with a cut-off assembly on a rocky island setting with a murderous cutthroat among them. Just bloody fun! ;)