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…