It’s always interesting diving into a renowned impossible crime novel. John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, John Sladek’s Invisible Green, Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat – each of these novels are a legend to themselves. Does that legend create too much of an expectation for the reader? Even if the stories deliver a tight puzzle and face slapping solution, can they ever really live up to their reputation?
In some cases, these books are known for an element beyond the pure impossibility. The Hollow Man is the most notable example, with an entire chapter devoted to a locked room lecture provided by Carr’s classic detective Dr Gideon Fell. The passage is well known for laying out all of the possible solutions to a locked room mystery – of course leaving the door open for the novel to deliver an unaccounted for technique.
This has a relevancy to Nine Times Nine, arguably the most famous story by literary critic and novelist Anthony Boucher. First, the book sits at position #9 in Ed Hoch’s famed 1981 list of top impossible crime novels. Second, the story has an entire chapter that offers a hat tipping extension to the locked room lecture delivered in Carr’s The Hollow Man. I’ve yet to read anything by Boucher, but recent reviews of The Case of the Crumpled Knave and The Case of the Seven Sneezes have him firmly on my radar.
Nine Times Nine is set in a WW2 era Los Angeles that is exploding in population. The city is plagued by mystics and messiahs, with a new cult emerging every few weeks (a trait I associate more with the 1960s). A mysterious yellow-robed prophet named Ahasver leads a bourgeoning movement called Children of Light, and provides the focus for the story. Wolfe Harrigan, author and debunker of charlatans, has his eye set on the sect. Harrigan hires scrub journalist and requisite point of view character Matt Duncan to assist in researching the man in the yellow robe. Things go awry when Duncan observes Ahasver through a window poking about in Harrigan’s office. Breaking down the door (locked from the inside of course), Duncan is shocked to find Harrigan dead and Ahasver vanished.
This isn’t quite a locked room – although the windows and doors are proven exhaustively to be sealed from within, one exit is available, albeit having been under constant observation by a witness upon whom suspicion quickly falls.
Still, this is a top 10 impossible crime novel, so that obvious answer is off limits. Right? Right?!?!?
It doesn’t appear to be. Duncan and an accompanying detective execute a scorched earth investigation of the room, examining every window, door, and minute hole and discounting numerous theories regarding how each could have provided a means for the murder. All exits are absolutely air tight. The killer simply had to leave through the one available exit under observation of the witness.
Then the investigators launch into a discourse of how a locked room murder could be faked – suicide, victim killed by the first person to enter, etc… the whole works. Then they drag out the big guns – John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man. An absolute epic chapter is spent going over each of the canonical solutions presented by Dr Fell in that fabled work, shooting them down one by one.
I don’t want to oversell it, but it was an absolute joy to read (granted I read it at 3am while suffering from insomnia on a recent trip to the UK). As a fan of impossible crimes, one of the keys for me is really selling the impossibility. If I’m going to read a 200+ page book, I need to believe that the puzzle is for real. Don’t just casually drop it as a minor curiosity along the way; focus on it. Pull a Judas Window or White Priory Murders and hammer into my brain the fact that the crime is impossible. Make me spend every minute away from the book pondering how the trick could have been pulled off. Anthony Boucher does exactly that.
Well, he does leave that one watched exit. It drives me nuts when Carr does this in his later historical mysteries – The Demoniacs, Fear is the Same, Scandal at High Chimneys, Fire, Burn… When the author creates a seemingly air tight impossible crime but then introduces a visible opening. Of course, the obvious solution is always a red herring and there’s something much more clever going on, but still, it somewhat spoils the effectiveness of the mystery.
Somehow, it simply works in Nine Times Nine. Perhaps its the reassurance that we get via Sister Ursula – Boucher’s infallible detective equivalent to a Fell or Merrivale – who calmly states that we can believe the witness. We know there’s that potential exit, but do we feel that a book this well regarded would hinge on a witness simply lying? Yet in the back of your mind you have the constant question of why that avenue is there…
Boucher doesn’t leave things with just an impossible crime. He ups the ante by tossing in a dying message – again, taking things meta via a discussion on dying messages. This is a mystery novel written for an audience that truly enjoys these staples of the genre. Granted, the dying message doesn’t payoff nearly as well as the locked room (does it ever?), but just the compounded promise had me squealing.
As for Boucher as an author, he’s no slouch. I like to jot down a memorable passage or two during my reading of a book, occasionally quoting them in my reviews. If I had done that with Nine Times Nine you’d have about 40 quotes. Boucher provides an easy read, but he has a way of capturing a moment that resonates particularly well with me.
“Death is not so terrible among the rich, he thought; with them it only balances the account, while from the poor it takes their last possession.”
Is Nine Times Nine the ninth best impossible crime novel of all times? That’s a difficult question to answer. Would I put it in my top 10 mystery novels that I’ve read? No. As much as I liked it, I’ve read more enjoyable stories. Would I put it in my top ten list if I winnowed it down to solely impossible crimes published before 1981? Mmm, possibly not – that list would lean heavily towards John Dickson Carr and I’m not sure that Nine Time Nine would quite make the cut.
Yet, if you want to force diversity of author into the list, I think you find yourself having to grab from titles like Rim of the Pit or Nine Times Nine. These are the books that have something extra that makes them stand out from the rest of their peers. In the case of Nine Times Nine, it is the delicious set of chapters focusing on the perplexity of the locked room problem. For that reason alone, I think you’d find it difficult to not at least bring this book up when debating the best of the best.