The Case of the Crumpled Knave – Anthony Boucher (1939)

I’ve been hellbent on acquiring this exact Popular Library edition of Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Crumpled Knave ever since I first saw it.  Released in 1949, the cover boasts a gorgeous illustration by Rudolph Belarski, and is the epitome of the classic style that I live for.  Tracking a copy down proved to be a bit tricky, as they typically flirt around the $40-60 range, but years of waiting finally panned out when I snagged a copy for less than $10.

On receiving the copy, I realized that it was a bit more lurid that I had noticed in the thumbnails I’d seen online.  The woman kneeling over the body is wearing a flat out see through top, which is not only surprising given that this edition is from the 1940s, but upon reading the book, I learned that:  1. The woman is kneeling over the body of her father.  2.  The woman just finished serving a room full of people breakfast.  So, anyway, covers aren’t always a good representation of a story, but this is still the style that I like and it has some nice touches around the dying message involving a playing card: the crumpled knave.

The Case of the Crumpled Knave has quite a bit to do with cards.  There’s a household of well todo types that have no better way to spend their time than to play endless games of solitaire – and I learned that there are a lot more versions of solitaire than I had ever dreamed of.  In fact, I learned a lot more about playing cards than I thought I wanted to know, but it was actually interesting stuff coming from the pen of Anthony Boucher.

Let’s see… the head of the family winds up dead from cause unknown, but he’s left a dying clue – a crumpled up jack of diamonds from an outlandishly expensive one of a kind deck.  There’s all sorts of questions about his will, a premature arrest is made, and you have all of the ingredients for a race to find the killer before an innocent man finds himself in front of a jury.

It’s fun Golden Age stuff.  I consider Anthony Boucher to be one of the more readable authors of the era, and one of the few that litters the pages with sentences that you feel compelled to jot down to be savored later.  We get the debut of his short lived series detective Fergus O’Breen (wonderful in The Case of the Solid Key and utterly annoying in The Case of the Seven Sneezes) working his way through a small cast of suspects, and I think any fan of GAD is going to enjoy this.  It’s good, but not great…

And then comes the ending.  Now, don’t let me oversell this, but I was completely spun.  I was pretty smug that I knew what had gone down, and then Boucher thoroughly depantsed me.  The surprises hit on a number of levels – not just the who – but I can’t quite get into that without spoilers, can I?  I’ll just say that nearly all of my expectations turned out to be way off.

And then there’s the final sentence of the book: quite possibly the best closing sentence that I’ve read.  It communicates such a shocking revelation with so little said, and upon finishing the story, I sat there staring wistfully.  And then I read the sentence again, and then I stared, and then I repeated.  And after about twenty minutes, I noticed my wife looking at me like I was crazy, so I put the book down.  But I still pick it up sometimes…

7 thoughts on “The Case of the Crumpled Knave – Anthony Boucher (1939)”

  1. My memories of the ending of this were that I was disappointed, but i couldn’t tell you why — I just have this vague sense of it being underwhelming. Which is weird, if it really packs the wallop you say. I shall reinvestigate my copy and see if anything stirs in the embers of my brain…

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    1. I walked into the ending thinking I was going to be disappointed, as the solution I had in mind wasn’t one that satisfies. Obviously I ended up enjoying this. Out of curiosity, when did you read this? Pre-blogging days?

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  2. I know I read all the O’Breen’s way back in the Dark Ages, and the only two things I can remember are that Boucher reminded me of Ellery Queen in the best of ways and that The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars was more of a comic romp than a whodunnit. I definitely should re-read him, but Boucher is someone I don’t want to approach on an e-book, something I know you understand.

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    1. You know, I don’t see the Ellery Queen comparison at all, other than the inclusion of a dying message in this one book, or perhaps the LA settings that would have been shared with some of the Queen works. Speaking of Queen, I really do need to get on to Cat of Many Tails.

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  3. IMO, this is the weakest of the O’Breen novels; SOLID KEY and (sorry) SEVEN SNEEZES are my two favorite Boucher books, and this one feels a step below them (would the murderer really not have anticipated the problem which finally trips them up?). Still, anything by Boucher is worth reading.

    Incidentally, I’ve always thought that Fergus’s name was inspired by Nicholas Blake’s THOU SHELL OF DEATH, which has some plot similarities to CRUMPLED KNAVE and whose victim is named Fergus O’Brien. The spelling of the last name may be a nod to Ellery Queen–as Brad says, Boucher was a huge admirer of Queen (although the influence may not show up that much in his early books) and eventually wrote for Queen’s radio show.

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    1. Perhaps I read The Case of the Seven Sneezes during a bad week, but I really didn’t like it, which is unfortunate, as I have such a nice Dell copy. We can agree on The Case of the Solid Key, I absolutely loved it.

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