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ANTHONY BOUCHER. The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937).

22 Nov

Many decades after it appeared, this début work by a pivotal figure in the history of detective fiction exudes a wonderful sense of ripeness. Boucher was a mere lad of 25 years when he wrote it, and a precocious, fully formed sensibility—a clear perspective on what the detective novel could and should offer—is evident in its pages from start to finish. Implicitly and on a few occasions explicitly, he pays homage to predecessors such as Edgar Allan Poe and to peers such as John Dickson Carr. AnthonyBoucher2.jpg In doing so, he signals his allegiance to a tradition that prizes fine gamesmanship no less than it does great storytelling. He even includes a clue-finder device, complete with references to the pages on which he has smuggled in telltale facts.

Boucher also structures the book, in an earnest yet knowing fashion, around classic genre tropes—from the use of a Watson-like figure, who holds the reader’s sympathy while offering assistance to a master sleuth, to the final scene in which the sleuth marches through all of the steps (cognitive and otherwise) that led to the discovery of a culprit. The chief driver of the story is Martin Lamb, a graduate student in German at the University of California, Berkeley, and he functions more or less like the juvenile-lead types who play a supporting role in many of Carr’s novels. (Unlike a true Watson, he does not narrate the tale directly.) The master sleuth is Professor John Ashwin, a teacher of Sanskrit whose store of knowledge extends well beyond that language. Ashwin remains offstage, for the most part, but makes a strong impact in the scenes that feature him.

The setting here—UC Berkeley, during what now seem like halcyon days for that institution—poses a challenge for Boucher. The milieu that he depicts pulses with optimism, with a buoyant faith in the value of rational thought and pragmatic activity. It is not, in other words, a venue where homicidal passions and dark secrets are likely to find a natural home. And so, to add intrigue and gravitas to that sun-dappled milieu, Boucher draws on the lore of an ancient and treacherous (and wholly fictional) religious sect: the eponymous Seven of Calvary. This plot element allows him to summon the menacing specter of Old World conspiracies, and it recalls another classic trope. Indeed, one character in the book alludes to this trope explicitly by likening the Seven of Calvary back-story to “early Doyle.” (It also anticipates a common theme in recent works such as The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, as in this one, early Christian heresies resurface to animate contemporary political machinations.)

The dramatis personae present a similar quandary. Most of the key characters are denizens or associates of International House, a residential center that serves both overseas students and American students with cosmopolitan affinities. They are bright young adults, each of them so apparently full of healthful energy and honest goodwill that it’s hard to imagine that they harbor bloodthirsty emotions. SevenCalvary.jpg Boucher, therefore, must play a clever game of misdirection to hide the hole where one or more known motives for murder would typically be.

The first killing takes place in a quiet residential precinct that lies between the campus and the Berkeley Hills—a sylvan realm where Lamb and other characters go for long, romance-nurturing walks—and the victim is Dr. Hugo Schaedel, an emissary of peace from Switzerland. The second killing occurs at a dress rehearsal for a student performance of Don Juan Returns, an old Spanish play that Lamb has translated into English, and the victim is Paul Lennox, an instructor in history who was part of the International House circle. The means of killing in the first instance is an ice pick; in the second, it’s a dose of strychnine. The shift in murder methods furnishes a clue that proves to be a decisive link in the chain of reasoning that Ashwin will forge when he presents a solution to the case.

This solution, together with the twists and turns that precede it, distinguishes Seven of Calvary as a prodigious display of Golden Age plotting—as a marvel of ingenuity that bears comparison with best novels of the same era by Carr and other virtuosos of the puzzle tale. The book’s only noteworthy flaw lies in its young author’s over-eager playfulness. Boucher brings to the proceeding a jaunty and sometimes flippant mood that lessens, just slightly, the weight of this freshman achievement. Solving a murder is serious business, or at least it should be.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on November 22, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

8 responses to “ANTHONY BOUCHER. The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937).

  1. JJ

    November 23, 2018 at 5:20 AM

    Good heavens, Mike, you make this sound far better than I thought its reputation allowed. I find myself itching to read it after several years of putting it off!

     
    • Mike

      November 23, 2018 at 10:02 AM

      I should probably trim back the praise a bit, lest I oversell the book. Don’t come to “Seven of Calvary” in expectation of a mind-blowing blockbuster puzzle. But do expect (a) a solid, nicely clued plot, (a) a briskly paced narrative of murder and detection, and (b) a very well limned mise-en-scène. Nowadays, a novel that delivers all three of those qualities counts for me as at least a minor masterpiece. In this case, the last of those qualities was particularly appealing: I live in the SF Bay Area, and a tale that brings Carrian twists and tropes to these parts makes for a thrilling read. Others’ mileage may vary, of course.

       
      • JJ

        November 23, 2018 at 10:07 AM

        Well, it still sounds better than I’d been lead to believe — appreciate you providing some clarification, but I’ll take my chances :)

         
  2. thegreencapsule

    November 23, 2018 at 11:23 AM

    I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Boucher so far, and I’m glad to see an enthusiastic review of this one. It’s too bad that he wrote so few mystery novels.

     
    • Mike

      November 23, 2018 at 2:47 PM

      Thanks for the comment, Ben. I wanted to make that very point as well: Why, I have wondered, did Boucher stop writing detective novels? He wrote seven of them in fairly short order, and the three that I’ve read (Calvary, Solid Key, and Rocket) suggest that he was unlikely to suffer a shortfall of inventiveness any time soon. Presumably, he simply had interests in too many areas, and serving as an editor, critic, and occasional short-story author in multiple genres allowed him to indulge those interests more readily. Alas!

       
  3. Justice for the Corpse

    November 23, 2018 at 5:44 PM

    Seven of Calvary is actually my favourite of Boucher’s novels, even though I wouldn’t say it’s his best considered purely as a detective story (Crumpled Knave is probably that). A very clever plot delivered in a very entertaining style; but as you note, sometimes Boucher seems to be having a little too much fun. There is an eighth, never-published Boucher novel that he wrote after Calvary but before the rest; from what I’ve read, he was having even more fun with that one, to the point where the publishers said “Too much!” He certainly toned it down after that.

    My other reservation is that one aspect of the solution is awfully transparent, although you won’t discern the whole pattern even if you do see through it right away.

    (Spoiler for one plot development that takes place in the first few chapters)

    I find it interesting that Boucher stresses that Dr. Schaedel is an absolutely saintly man, in light of the fact that he pays for his nephew’s girlfriend’s abortion. Boucher was walking on some controversial ground there, but I guess we can discern what his views on the subject were.

     
    • Mike

      November 23, 2018 at 5:57 PM

      Thanks for the comment, Rusty (I hope I got the name right). I also read somewhere that Boucher wrote a second Prof. Ashwin novel that lies in his archives somewhere. Here’s hoping that a publisher someday finds a way to bring it into print. Even if it’s half as good as Boucher’s other novels, it would be well worth one’s reading time.

      With regard to your last point (SPOILER):

      I very much took note of Boucher’s use of that plot element, which seems remarkably open and remarkably liberal for that era. Boucher was also known to be a devout Catholic—which makes his treatment of the subject all the more curious.

       
      • Justice for the Corpse

        November 24, 2018 at 6:38 AM

        Yep, I’m Rusty!

        About that last point we’ve been hiding under spoiler warnings…

        I don’t want to delve too deeply into controversial ground on a blog about mystery stories, so I’ll just say this: having grown up Catholic, I’m well aware that many, many members of that faith don’t agree with their Church’s official, hardline position on the matter. Boucher, I’m certain, was one of them. Gutsy move on his part to be so openly approving of what Schaedel did.

         

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