I was a bit skeptical that I was ever going to get my hands on this one. The Case of the Seven of Calvary must be the most difficult Anthony Boucher mystery to get for a reasonable price. A quick check online as I write this shows a copy going for $40 (way more than I’d ever pay), and then the next choices are jacketless hardbacks in the $60 range before we spiral into the bonkers price range north of one thousand dollars. But patience is key my friends – decide what you want, decide what you’ll pay for it, and then stay determined.
I eventually nabbed a 1961 Collier Books edition for $8. It’s not the prettiest thing – there appears to be a tea stain and someone did a dreadful job of removing what I assume was a price sticker from the cover – but once you get past the front and back covers, it’s perfectly readable. And that’s what matters, right? Because Anthony Boucher is one of my favorite mystery authors to read.
The Case of the Seven of Calvary takes place at University of California Berkeley and our cast is made up of residents of the international house: students from Peru, Russia, Mexico, etc. Given the era that this was written in, we miraculously dodge mortifying attempts at ethnic humor, with the biggest joke being a Canadian who adopts an English accent so that he can stand out from the Americans.
The college is hosting a guest speaker, a humanitarian from Switzerland who has devoted his life to world peace. What then is the motive when the Swiss lecturer’s corpse is discovered with an ice pick in his back? And what is the significance of the sketch of a mysterious symbol – what appears to be three rectangles and a seven – found on a scrap of paper at the scene?
It’s the motive that’s key. The Case of the Seven of Calvary is all about motive, and if you can spot the motive, you’ll solve the mystery instantly. And that’s no spoiler, as the focus on motive is laid plain via a Gideon Fell-esque lecture on motives for murder early in the book, a theme revisited multiple times throughout. It’s a well hidden motive, and boy was I kicking myself when it came to the solution.
There’s also a clever misdirection that these veteran eyes should have spotted immediately… and I kind of did. I picked up on the relevant passages I read it, but somehow still didn’t manage the ounce of intelligence to put the pieces together. Definitely a solution where everything feels obvious in retrospect, which is the true hallmark of a satisfying mystery.
So where does this fit in Boucher’s catalog? It’s kind of in that mix of books that are all excellent: The Case of the Solid Key, Nine Times Nine, The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, The Case of the Crumpled Knave. It’ll be tough to eventually rank Boucher’s mystery novels, although, shoot, I think I may have subconsciously ordered them right there for you, with The Case of the Seven of Calvary floating somewhere around Baker Street Irregulars. The Case of the Seven Sneezes is the only Boucher book that I didn’t care for, and trails far behind in last place.
And unfortunately, that only leaves me with Rocket to the Morgue as far as Anthony Boucher mystery novels go. Then I’ll just be left with some short stories and radio plays. Hopefully someone like Tony Medawar digs up some long lost Boucher novel, but I’m not getting my hopes up. Edit: well, wait – breaking news! The upcoming Bodies from the Library Volume 5 does indeed feature what JJ at The Invisible Event describes as a long short story by Anthony Boucher!