You’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?
The 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.