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

CaseOfTheSolidKeyHaving enjoyed Anthony Boucher’s locked room classic Nine Time Nine, my natural next stop was Rocket to the Morgue.  Right?  I mean, that’s the only other title by the author that ever really gets mentioned.   That struck me as odd.  Boucher was a well regarded writer of both science fiction and mysteries, yet I only really associate his name with two mystery novels.  Instead, I typically think of him as the mystery critic who wrote forwards in reprints of other authors’ novels, or assembled short story compilations, such as The Quintessence of Queen.

Recent reviews of The Case of the Crumpled Knave and The Case of the Seven Sneezes turned me on to the fact that Boucher had an actual library of books aside from those published under the pseudonym of H.H. Holmes (Nine Time Nine and Rocket to the Morgue).  A comment by Tomcat from Beneath the Stains of Time pointed me towards The Case of the Solid Key – a novel I’d never heard of, and one that Tomcat suggested had a particularly interesting solution.  The ante was raised when JJ from The Invisible Event replied that the book was nearly impossible to find at an affordable price.

I have a bit of a running joke with JJ where I consistently produce gorgeous editions of classic novels without breaking the bank.  When I immediately tracked down The Case of the Solid Key for $6, I had to go for it.  Well, this isn’t really a gorgeous edition, but given that this seems to be a somewhat elusive title, I couldn’t turn it down in any form.

I’ll confirm that Tomcat is correct in that there is a nice gem of a solution to this one.  But let’s rewind a little first and take a glance at the plot.  Down on his luck aspiring playwright Norman Harker is beating around 1940’s Hollywood, having moved from Oklahoma with the hope of hitting the big time.  An attempt to charm a lady at a diner draws him into the drama surrounding a theatre troupe of wannabe stars with similar aspirations.  It’s within these confines that a puzzling impossible crime occurs.

I’ll divert for a bit to share a bit of a secret – I watch a lot of horror movies.  I realize this hobby may not resonate with my readers, but I’ll attempt an analogy nonetheless.  Occasionally you get a horror movie where you’re twenty minutes in, cycling through the cardboard “background building” before the actual horror starts – and I’ll find myself thinking “gee, I hope nothing bad happens to these people”.  Which of course is ludicrous, because you’re watching a horror movie for… I don’t know, but not to watch a bunch of campers go on camping.  But occasionally you’ll get one of these movies where you’re just kind of enjoying watching the road trip.

Anyway, I attempt this awful analogy to point out just how well Anthony Boucher drew me into the lead up to the actual locked room.  The actual puzzle doesn’t present itself until maybe midway through the novel.  Up until then, you have your typical dopey GAD point of view character swilling beers and attempting to win the affection of the female lead – somewhat what you expect in this type of novel.  And yet there I am, eating it up, thinking “gee, I hope nothing bad happens…”

This is really just my attempt to say “Anthony Boucher does it for me”.  He may not have the florid prose of John Dickson Carr, nor the witty observation of Christianna Brand, but there’s something he captures as a writer where I could read him even if there wasn’t an actual mystery.  That has to count for something.  Don’t get me wrong and think you’re coming into some literary masterpiece, but I was more than engaged in a seemingly pedestrian plot long before the locked room mystery presented itself.

“One trouble with you, is that you keep going esthetic on me.  You ask, ’Now what’ll make a neat and beautiful plot?’  Stop worrying about form and satisfaction and let’s figure out what happened.”

As I mentioned before, the impossible crime element doesn’t occur until midway through the novel, so I won’t get into the specifics of who it happens to.  You know something big is going to happen, but there is an uncertainty surrounding it, which creates a definite tension.  Best for you to enjoy on your own.

A man is found dead in a locked room, and similar to Nine Times Nine, Boucher assures you that it is completely impossible that the doors or windows have been messed with.  The title of the book comes from the fact that the key used to lock the door from the inside has an unusual composition, eliminating the possibility that any sort of jiggery pokey could have been used to manipulate the key with a string or similar mechanism.

You know – if it weren’t for the one chapter in Nine Times Nine where Boucher drags up the famed locked room lecture from John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, I could imagine that The Case of the Solid Key would vie for being just as well regarded.  Nine Times Nine may win out for that one meta passage, which is basically a locked room fan’s dream, but both of these books probably read equally well from cover to cover.

In fact, I may give points to The Case of the Solid Key in terms of the solution.  There is such an obviousness to it after the fact – one of those things you could have never thought of beforehand, but after sitting and thinking about it for 30 seconds, you’re like “wow, that’s just brilliant.”  Don’t let me oversell you on this, but if you’re a fan of locked room mysteries, I have to think that you walk away from this one at the very least satisfied.

On top of that, Boucher pulled a total twist on me at the end, for reasons that I won’t go into.  I’ll just say that I walked into the finale gloating that particular facts were obvious and totally had the rug pulled out from beneath me.

Weak points?  Well, I won’t provide any specifics, but there is a secondary mystery that is so goddamned obvious that if you don’t see through it by page 30 then I am sorry for you.  It’s comical that an author and literary critic such as Boucher would save this plot tangent as a big reveal because I can’t imagine any reader being surprised by it.  Thankfully it is completely secondary and doesn’t detract from the central mystery.

One word of warning – my edition of the book contains a hilarious mistake on the back jacket summary of the plot – a mistake that could be considered to be a massive spoiler.  Thankfully I’ve stopped reading cover summaries of books altogether, but I practically fell out of my chair when I went back and read the slip up on this one.

As for Boucher, I’m looking forward to my next encounter with the author – most likely The Case of the Seven Sneezes, which I managed to snag in Dell map back form.  It’s unfortunate that the author only wrote seven full mystery novels (at least as far as I can tell), as I’m sensing at this point that I’m going to enjoy them all.

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17 thoughts on “The Case of the Solid Key – Anthony Boucher (1941)”

  1. The secondary twist is pretty obvious, isn’t it? I rather hoped that Boucher threw that in to make the reader feel like he had managed to solve SOMETHING. because otherwise it seems he thought his readers were dense. All his books are super-intelligent, but there’s always some little flaw … Nine Times Nine may be the best of them, as you say. Honestly I think his greatest contribution was as a critic, although I really enjoy his novels.

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  2. I didn’t like this one as much as I did Boucher’s other novels… but it’s been a while since I looked at it. Based on your enthusiasm, it’s time for a reread, I think. By the way, I had that same “Green Door Mystery” edition – and yes, the back cover blurb has a big mistake in it.

    According to Jeffrey Marks, Boucher wrote another mystery novel, titled The Case of Toad-in-the-Hole, featuring some of the characters from The Case of the Seven of Calvary, but his publisher rejected it and the manuscript is in an academic library. In recent years, other unpublished novels by authors like Erle Stanley Gardner and Donald Westlake have finally seen the light of day… maybe there’s hope for this one?

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    1. If this is the worst of the Boucher novels then I have a lot to look forward to. I’ve also heard that he has a good compilation of short stories – Exeunt Murderers. Have you read it?

      Here’s hoping to a republishing of The Case of Toad-in-the-Hole. There’s nothing like being tempted with the prospect of an unpublished novel – especially for an author who had a short but quality run.

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      1. I have not yet read Exeunt Murderers, although looking at the table of contents, I have read a number of the stories in it elsewhere. The quality of the ones I’ve seen ranged from very good to okay. I will get to the complete collection one of these days!

        By the way, series detective Fergus O’Breen also solves cases in two stories published in the companion fantasy/SF Boucher collection, The Compleat Werewolf.

        Regarding publishing unpublished manuscripts… who does one even get in touch with to suggest something like that? I guess the first step would be whoever controls Boucher’s literary estate. (I hope that would not be an obstacle in itself… I know of one SF writer who didn’t name a literary executor in his will, so when he died, control of his works went to relatives who hated the fact that he’d been a writer and would not authorize further reprints.)

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      2. “Exeunt Murderers” is a must have, as is the companion volume “The Compleat Boucher”, which together contain all of Boucher’s short fiction. The latter focuses mainly on Boucher’s SF and fantasy stories, but contain quite a few stories that would be classified as mysteries as well, while the former contains all of Boucher’s “pure” mysteries. The Nick Noble stories are perhaps the main draw of “Exeunt”, but there are also two short stories featuring Sister Ursula, and a slew of non-series stories.

        Incidentally, it’s kinda interesting that in the short story format, Fergus O’Breen only investigates SF/fantasy mysteries, while the novels featuring him are pure mysteries.

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  3. So glad you liked this one and were able to procure a copy! The locked room trick, simplistic as it may be, was really clever, wasn’t it? This simplicity has prevented the book from ever garnering a reputation for itself among locked room readers, which is a shame, because it’s a clever, well-constructed and enjoyable mystery novel.

    I’ve read Exeunt Murderers and the Nick Noble stories are the highlight of that collection. A series-character who only appeared in short stories and is more than deserving of his own collection. I have been hoping for years that someone decides to finally publish The Case of the Toad-in-the-Hole.

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    1. I still can’t get over the locked room trick. I was just laying in bed this morning thinking about how it is an absolute text book example of misdirection. In my mind, that stands out much better than an elaborate solution.

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  4. Thanks for the mentions. Not got this one on my TBR pile, but it seems like I should keep my eye out for it. I was quite lucky in getting three of my Boucher novels in a group purchase. Hopefully get around to another Boucher read this month.

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  5. It’s a good job I found pristine copies of Carr’s The Burning Court, The Three Coffins, The Nine Wrong Answers, and Till Death Do Us Part yesterday, or I’d be fuming over how easily you’ve just picked up something I’ve been trying to find for ages…

    Still, good to know this is a good one, and I’ve read the Nick Noble and Sister Ursula stories in Exeunt Murderers and they’re…nicely written. I should really read the finalsection of that to get a complete overview, but I think I just heard the sound of 20 signed copies being backed up to your front door in a truck, so you’ll doubtless get to it before I do 🙂

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      1. Hell, I couldn’t afford to be selective when I started with Carr — it was so rare to find anything, I simply snapped up whatever I stumbled across. It’s only in my later years of this obsession that I’m choosing to be more selective when buying extra copies…always believeing that I’ll find more at some point.

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  6. Thanks for the review. 😊 I’ve been collecting Boucher’s novels, thanks to JJ’s recommendation of “Nine Times Nine” and Kate’s reviews of “Crumpled Knave” and “Seven Sneezes”. I feel like I should pick this one up too – but it’s harder to find as it doesn’t seem to have been included in Murder Room’s collection of Boucher ebooks.

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