Fans of vintage mysteries express regret that Anthony Boucher (same sound as “voucher”) wrote only three mysteries starring his private eye hero, Fergus O’Breen. Like Nero Wolfe, O’Breen is less a character than a collection of quirks. He drives a canary yellow roadster and his gaudy wardrobe makes people think the circus is in town. In order to think he needs to pace up and down, so when he twists his ankle in this one, he feels hemmed in and bummed out. He has a super-human capacity for adult beverages. A well-read scholar, he calls himself an “introspective extrovert with manic-depressive tendencies.” With his eccentricities, red hair and larger than life personality then, we may safely conclude he’s indeed a son of the Emerald Isle.
The second of Boucher’s trio of mysteries, The Case of the Solid Key, was released in 1941. The setting is Hollywood. Not the glamorous City of Dreams showcasing big stars and major studios, but the Tinsel Town of No Pity. The characters are mainly young actors and actresses scrambling to get noticed by agents and talent spotters. They toil at menial jobs to pay the rent and put on plays in a little theater which is mainly a racket run by a sharper. O’Breen’s sister Maureen (really – Maureen O’Breen) is the Head of Publicity for Metropolis Pictures so we get fascinating descriptions of a film studio as work environment during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Boucher must have been writing about milieu – young actors vs. big studios - that he knew intimately because setting and characters ring true.
The mystery unfolds gradually, with the murder occurring about half-way into the book. Usually this would be a problem for me, a guy that likes the corpse discovered by the end of chapter one. But, as I hinted, the authentic setting and skilled characterization more than make up for the lack of detecting.
Period touches and heavy themes add interest. Boucher tosses into the mix a spoiled rich actress grousing about the socialistic ways of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and lefty theater managers that connive to make the little theater into a worker-owned cooperative. But Boucher was by no means a heathenish New Dealer because at the end of the story the perp discusses sin in terms of reason, free will, personal responsibility, and the voluntariness of ignorance. While the Catholic theology takes only a couple of pages of the book, it will surely perk up readers who re-read Chesterton’s Father Brown tales.
This vintage mystery is well-worth reading. I can see why discerning readers wish Boucher had written more mysteries and not turned his attention to science fiction and criticism. He is remembered so fondly, in fact, that the Anthony Awards are given at each annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.