The Case of the Seven Sneezes – Anthony Boucher (1942)

CaseOfSevenSneezesYou’re always looking for that next best thing, right?  That next John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, or pick your poison.  The author that delivered not just one or two mysteries that knocked you over, but enough of them that you could gorge on the wealth of their library.

Lord knows we put them through their paces.  A puzzle that both captures and confounds the imagination.  A solution at once complex and yet mind numbingly simple.  To top it off, you have to back that all with enough story and character to make it feel worth something.

The author on my radar since last summer has been Anthony Boucher.  I got hooked with his most famous novel, Nine Times Nine, as I can imagine many a reader has.  As a send up to John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, it is a locked room mystery for locked room mystery aficionados.  My second read with Boucher is what really got me addicted.  The Case of the Solid Key is just as solid of an impossible crime as Nine Times Nine, plus it features a “why didn’t I think of that?” forehead slapping solution.  What sealed it though for me was that both novels read really well – almost like an American version of John Dickson Carr.  Err… well, Carr was American, but you know what I mean.

Which leads me to The Case of the Seven Sneezes.  I first read about this over at Cross Examining Crime last summer, and it sounded right up my alley.  Although not featuring an impossible crime, the set up is almost too good to be true.

Rewind to 1915 and the wedding of Horace and Catherine Brainard.  Two cats are found dead, their throats slit.  A bridesmaid is soon to follow in the same fashion.  The police do a poor job investigating, blaming the murder on a prowler.  The case is never solved.

Twenty five years later, amidst the looming entry of the US into the second world war, the Brainard’s gather the wedding party to celebrate their silver anniversary.  An alarm goes up when another cat turns up with a cut throat, but that doesn’t stop the group from venturing out to isolated Blackman’s Island.  Of course, someone drives off with the only boat…

You can probably figure out what happens from here.  A comparison to And Then There Were None would overplay the violence, but the guests start to get picked off one by one.  Fortunately, amongst their cast is Fergus O’Breen, Boucher’s series private investigator.

Ok, so we have a crime of the past, a high body count, and an isolated island.  Oh yeah, and a Dell map back.  What isn’t there to love?

A lot actually.  I wouldn’t say that I strongly disliked The Case of the Seven Sneezes, but I just never got into it.  It all sounded so good on paper, but in execution it was flaccid and a bit annoying.

The annoying part is courtesy of Fergus O’Breen.  While he was fine in The Case of the Solid Key playing the role of the detective who swoops in to solve the case, as a central character he falls flat.  He’s like a dopey do-gooder version of early-era Ellery Queen.  Anthony Boucher apparently feels that a constant stream of literary quotes makes a detective sound intelligent, but it’s as annoying as in any other book.  Oh yeah, he also knocks out a woman who tries to come on to him so that he doesn’t have to turn her down.  Those silly nymphomaniacs – won’t they learn?

CaseOfSevenSneezes2The plot should make up for it though, right?  Oddly it didn’t.  A “crime of the past” novel works best when the author obscures events through the veil of time, yet gradually teases out the detail.  In The Case of the Seven Sneezes, the past crime is just that – a crime that happened in the past.  There’s no haunting mystery, no realization that past actions need to be looked at in a different light.  We never really get a sense of the younger versions of the present day characters.  As such, this is more of a present day murder mystery that just happens to bear some semblance to events from 25 years ago.

The present day mystery is good though right?  I mean, we have people trapped on an island getting picked off one by one.  Eh, it just fell flat for me.  Boucher never created a real tension, nor did he create a puzzle that sets the inquisitive mind alight.  Instead we have a plot you’ve probably seen play out fifty times in mediocre movies and TV shows.  People get stabbed; anyone could have done it.  People get bludgeoned; anyone could have done it.  Everyone gathers, comments that they shouldn’t split up, and then go their separate ways.

It’s too bad; I was excited to read this one.  And yet, with forty pages left, when I was just on the edge of the denouement, I put the book down and didn’t get back to it for five days.  Now, I frequently have reading gaps like that due to my professional and personal life (I do most of my reading on the weekend), but you can believe that when I typically have forty pages left in a mystery novel, I make time to read.

Not in this case.  There just wasn’t a curiosity to be satisfied.

It’s worth noting that The Case of the Seven Sneezes was Anthony Boucher’s final mystery novel (he only wrote seven).  It was released the same year as Rocket to the Morgue (published under the name of H.H. Holmes) and a year after The Case of the Solid Key (1941).  While The Case of the Solid Key was packed with sumptuous passages that I was jotting down left and right, The Case of the Seven Sneezes had no real memorable lines.  It’s an interesting fall off in a single year.

Oh well.  I’m still really anxious to dive into my next Anthony Boucher book, and I’ll continue to actively seek out the rest of his library.  This was just a stumbling block – equivalent to reading The Dead Man’s Knock as your third John Dickson Carr novel.  Boucher’s impressed me twice, and I’m still willing to roll the dice that he has a lot more good in store.

12 thoughts on “The Case of the Seven Sneezes – Anthony Boucher (1942)”

  1. I’m a fan of Boucher’s Nine Times Nine and The Case of the Cumpled Knave, but Rocket to the Morgue is a nuthin’ book — the exquisite characterisation of Sister Ursula aside — and, having read his Nick Noble and two Sister Ursula stories it’s difficult to consider him as a great loss to the genre after only seven books. No doubt he knew his stuff as a critic, but he’s always seemed a little Clayton Rawson-y to me: a couple of good ones, maybe one that stretches towards excellence at times, but overall a footnote as a compiler of plots.

    I’ve had Solid Key for a while (after much searching!) and am eager to read it, but can’t say Ill be rushing out to track down his other novels with any alacrity after that. I’m interested in his criticism, however, and Ramble House do have a collection of that, and so that might be my next calling point.

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    1. ”. . . it’s difficult to consider him as a great loss to the genre after only seven books . . .”

      Er, Ben, I would ask you to pay no attention to the flippant dismissal of Boucher for his contributions to the mystery genre. The novels are one thing (and there is still fun to be had there, even if his long form work isn’t A+), but Boucher – sometimes alone and sometimes with Denis Green, was one of the foremost contributors to mystery radio theatre. His scripts for Sherlock Holmes and The Casebook of Gregory Hood alone constitute some of the most brilliant examples of the genre, with many of the adventures pure fair play. Some of the best Hood scripts were published by Crippen and Landru. So don’t be discouraged by this; Boucher was a GAD hero!

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    2. There’s a really nice cover on one of the editions of The Case of the Crumpled Knave, but I’ve been struggling to track it down at a reasonable price. As for Rocket to the Morgue, I believe the solution was ruined for me by a comment in a post about a month ago.

      I recently acquired a copy of The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars. The plot set up sounds fantastic, but I recall Kate at Cross Examining Crime was less than enthusiastic about the execution. Perhaps it will be like The Case of the Seven Sneezes in that respect.

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      1. I read Baker Street so many years ago that I’ve forgotten it. I also bought a cheap copy and plan to re-read. As I remember, it had mystery elements but was more of a lark than a strong whodunnit. I think if you go into it with that expectation, you might enjoy it more. The other one that divides people – but that I think Kate liked – was The Case of the Seven of Calgary.

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  2. You’ve put your finger on the main thing I didn’t care for in this one – in spite of the terrific setting and what should have been a suspenseful plot, I found my interest lessening as I got closer to the identification of the murderer. And I agree that Fergus O’Breen is annoying here, more so than in some of his other cases. I much prefer the Sister Ursula-Lt. Marshall team, or even the Professor Ashwin-Martin Lamb team from Seven of Calvary. I haven’t read much about Nick Noble (who only appeared in short stories) yet – have to rectify that. And then there are those radio scripts Brad mentions…

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  3. What a pity this one didn’t work for you. I remember quite liking it and has that unforgettable, almost surrealistic, scene in the hallway with a couple of people singing “Three Blind Mice” to a locked door. Tell me you at least liked that scene.

    I second Brad’s recommendation for The Casebook of Gregory Hood! And the original 1940s radio broadcasts of the show, which you can find all over the web. There are many more great old-time radio detective series (Suspense, Ellery Queen and The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe).

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