The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars – Anthony Boucher (1940)

BakerStreetMan, I’ve missed Anthony Boucher.  First I was in love, and then I fell out of love, and now I’m asking myself why it ever went sour.  Well, the answer to that is easy – The Case of the Seven Sneezes. After an absolutely storming introduction to Boucher by way of Nine Times Nine and The Case of the Solid Key, I had found my next big thing.  This was a mystery author whose work simply sang – deft impossibilities rendered in the fat of some of the best prose that the GAD era had to offer.  Scarcely a page went by without encountering a passage that I yearned to stamp permanently in my mind.

And then came the incongruous mix of the obnoxious and the forgettable – The Case of the Seven Sneezes.  How it was even written by the same author is beyond me.  No, it’s not some legendarily bad book by any means, but it just lacks the wit and panache of its brethren.  My excitement for Boucher was gone.

That The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars has sat in a stack directly next to my keyboard for an entire year simply blows my mind.  Well, I mean, I know why – I was turned off on Boucher and the Holmesian title doesn’t exactly tingle the imagination – but good god, now that I’ve read it, I have the passion again.  This is the book that I wanted after The Case of the Solid Key: a continuation of that brilliant pen.

I’ll pause to note that The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars isn’t some top 10 title – no, I’m not going to try to convince you of that.  But it’s that type of read that sweeps you away into an unexpected world that you just don’t want to leave.  It’s a fucked up acid trip fantasy of a GAD novel.  The best analogy I can provide is The Arabian Nights Murder by John Dickson Carr mixed with a healthy shake of The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

On the surface, The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars is your above average GAD mystery with a clever premise.  A Hollywood studio is preparing to film The Speckled Band, and fans of Sherlock Holmes are up in arms.  The writer selected for the script is the detestable Stephen Worth – a hardboiled writer who thinks the deductive school is bunk.  Worth plans to make a mockery of Holmes, and he’s managed to legally attach himself as the only writer that the studio can use.

“Those cockeyed pantywaist deductionists.  These silly frilly nancy-pantsy dabblers who think they can write about detectives.  Solving murders oh! so cutely with a book on Indo-Arabian ceramics when they’d faint at the sight of a nosebleed.”

Fearing a disaster, the studio ships in five members of The Baker Street Irregulars (maniacally obsessed Holmes fans) to steer things in the right direction.  Each of the Irregulars has their own quirks, and they’re introduced in their own environments prior to leaving for Los Angeles.  There’s a feeling very similar to the beginning of a Christianna Brand novel.

Stephen Worth is big enough scum that we know he’s going to inevitably wind up dead.  A drunken brawl at a media event ends with Worth shot in the heart, and seemingly only one of the Irregulars could have committed the crime.

It’s a clever enough set up, with the Holmes obsessed Irregulars making a motley band of amateur detectives trying to find the killer in their midst.  The core mystery relies on time tables, and as enjoyable as Boucher’s writing is, my immediate thought after being presented with the murder was “well, I’m not going to actually bother to go back and read who was where when.  Let’s just let it ride.”

And it had been a fun ride up until that point.  Then down the rabbit hole we went.

It seems that a crazy day has passed since the murder of Stephen Worth.  Each of the Irregulars has a strange tale to tell, and their stories are brought forth in dedicated chapters.  This is where things feel a bit like the second section of The Arabian Nights Murder, with the Irregulars delivering monologues in each of their own pompous styles.  They’re grand sweeping stories that could nearly stand alone  – a sea captain’s tale that spins the reader from the capital of Cambodia to the Gulf of Guayaquil; a crazed ride through Los Angeles in a blacked out taxi; German spies with ciphers hidden in canes; the plight of a poor Russian apothecary – each of these are true gems.  At one point I recall pausing in my read, as if coming out of a malaise, and thinking, “wait, what book am I reading?”

It’s the delivery provided by each Irregular that made this such a ripping read.  These guys are so over the top and confident in their reasoning, while at the same time coming across as complete fools.  It’s comedy without feeling like it’s trying.  Boucher provides a constant string of memorable lines – “…where farce and terror follow so closely on each other’s heels that horror congeals the spine still trembling with laughter” or “He was a fixed point in a world of flux.”

I’ll warn you that I might be alone in this opinion though.  Kate at Cross Examining Crime found the second half of the book to drag, and pretty much everyone who commented on her post agreed.

The stories all tie back in together and we find ourselves back in reality with a murder to solve.  Time for the denouement… I think…  Man, there are so many false solutions to this one.  Like almost too many.  Boucher lets them fly like a magician whipping handkerchiefs from a hat.  It gets confusing at a point because you keep thinking you’re being given the final solution and then it’s like “wait, was that it or are we still going?”

Mystery-wise The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars probably isn’t the strongest.  There’s a key twist that I think most readers will see through, and Boucher’s attempts to obscure it feel a bit like a cheat at the end.  The actual solution to the crime involves a clever trick that feels a bit like something Carr might come up with, although better suited to a short story.

I loved it though.  This is the type of book to save for when you need a strong jolt to remind you what you enjoyed about golden age detective fiction in the first place.  And it served to remind me of what I love about Anthony Boucher’s writing.  Now I just need to track down the rest of his books…

My edition

I don’t think there’s an especially desirable edition of The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars.  None of the covers that I’ve seen are that compelling, and so I suppose my drab 1962 Collier Books edition is as good as the rest of them.  I think it’s the over-reliance on the Sherlock Holmes connection that does these covers in, which is too bad because there are so many bizarre scenes that would make for great cover art.

There’s opportunity for a Dell map back as well, as the book features a floor plan of the murder house.  In fact the book is stocked with illustrations – several cryptograms and two diagrams that explain how aspects of the crime were committed.

11 thoughts on “The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars – Anthony Boucher (1940)”

  1. I remember reading and liking it decades ago – so much that I bought a copy a couple of years ago . . . and there it sits, on the shelf, unread. I need to get back my own passion for Anthony Boucher. Have you listened to some of his radio mysteries? They’re quite fun! The Casebook of Gregory Hood was a mere summer replacement show for Boucher’s other show, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Both are great, and the latter shows that Boucher knew his Holmsian lore.

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    1. I haven’t read or listened to any of Boucher’s shorter material. There’s a somewhat recent collection of the Gregory Hood scripts that I need to get my hands on, along with Exeunt Murderers, which I believe collects several Fergus O’Breen mysteries.

      The Holmesian lore in Irregulars is fantastic. The events of the book follow a number of the Holmes stories, and there are even a number of references to “unreleased” tales mentioned by Watson.

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      1. “Exeunt Murderers” doesn’t feature any Fergus O’Breen mysteries, but does contain all of Boucher’s Sister Ursula and Nick Noble shorts, as well as all his other regular mysteries in the short format.

        For the short stories about Fergus O’Breen, you need to get “The Compleat Anthony Boucher”, which collects all his SF short stories – and yes, when it came to short stories, for some reason Boucher decided to use the otherwise very earthy Fergus in a couple of SF/mystery hybrids. I’d still recommend it – there’s an impossible SF mystery in “Gandolphus,” and if you’re interested in pure SF, there’s also his perhaps most famous short story – “The Quest for St. Aquin”.

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      2. You should check with Crippen & Landru to see if they have any copies of the Hood collection left. I have it, and it’s terrific. Meanwhile, lots of episodes of Holmes and Hood are available online to hear. I also have from Purview Press a collection of lost Holmes scripts from the 1944-45 season that were written by Leslie Charteris and Denis Green. Green was Boucher’s usual writing partner for these shows.

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  2. Ordinarily I’d be lamenting how grand this sounds and how unavailable it is, but the American Mystery Classics range are reprinting it later this year. A win for classics reprints once again…!

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  3. I have to say I’m with the folks who found the series of “my bizarre adventure” chapters tended to drag after the fun stuff that had come before.

    The ultimate clue reminded me more of Ellery Queen that John Dickson Carr — although there is one Carr novel that has a similar one (I won’t say which, but I bet you were thinking of it too). For my money, it’s one of the best clues Boucher ever came up with, but I’m glad the whole book didn’t turn on just that.

    It’s well known that Boucher gave up writing mystery novels because there was better money in other things, including reviewing them for the New York Times, as he did from the early 1950s to his death in 1967. There is a book of his mid-1940s reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle that has been published, but no comprehensive collection of his Times pieces. I hope someday there will be, so I can see what we got in place of the novels I wish he had written.

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