There are exceptions to every rule. I prefer to limit the books which I review on the Classic Mysteries podcast to those still in print or otherwise readily available. Today's offering From the Vault is different. It's The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, by Anthony Boucher, and it's sadly out of print. There do seem to be a dozen or so old paperback copies listed for sale at reasonable prices through Amazon's network of second-hand book dealers, and I'm sure you could find dealers in mystery books who would be glad to help you find a copy. Why go to all that trouble? Because (1) it's very very good, (2) it's very very Sherlockian, and (3) it's by Anthony Boucher, the author and critic for whom Bouchercon, the world's largest and oldest mystery conference, is named. It's pronounced BOW-cher, by the way, with the "bow" of "take a bow" or rhyming with "brow" or "ouch" or a tree "bough." All that being said, here's my original review of The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, first published on the podcast nearly a decade ago.
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The game’s afoot again Watson – but this time, it’s not Sherlock Holmes, but the Baker Street Irregulars who are called upon to solve the case. And what a mystery it turns out to be. Direct from Hollywood, it’s The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, by Anthony Boucher..
As you must guess from the title alone, this book is a particular delight to fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories – or, as the Irregulars themselves would call them, the “sacred writings.” The irregulars were – and are – a devoted group of Holmes fans, who take their name from Holmes’s "irregular" army of street urchins, who would carry out errands for him. Back in 1940, when this book was written, the irregulars included a great many famous writers and critics, such as Christopher Morley and Alexander Woollcott, among its members.
Here’s the situation: a major movie company is about to make a film based on one of the Holmes short stories. For reasons known only to Hollywood, it has picked a screenwriter who is not only a mystery author of what we will politely call the blood-and-guts school…in addition, he hates everything about Holmes and about people who admire Holmes.
The studio receives a petition from the Baker Street Irregulars – and remember, these include influential critics and writers – demanding that this script writer be removed from the project. With the real possibility of a boycott looming over it, the studio responds by inviting members of the irregulars to come to Hollywood to supervise the making of the film.
So several leading (and fictional) members of the group go to Hollywood. Immediately, of course, there is a violent confrontation with the despised scriptwriter There are cryptic warnings – all delivered in a fashion that readers of the Holmes stories will recognize: an envelope containing dried orange pips, for example, and another with a series of drawings of what appear to be dancing men. The irregulars very quickly become involved in a murder, followed by the disappearance of the body. And, in very quick order, each of them is lured into what can only be described as an individual fantastic adventure – each based, as we will discover, on one or more of the supposedly unwritten Sherlock Holmes cases mentioned and promised in the original stories, but never delivered by Dr. Watson.
Eventually, the murder is solved. But along the way, we have a housekeeper named Mrs. Hudson and the Los Angeles Police even manage to come up with a Sergeant named Watson, so our Sherlock Holmes atmosphere is maintained on all fronts. And it’s worth noting that the ultimate clue leading to the solution will be provided by Sergeant Watson.
All of this is done in fairly high good humor, and the Holmesian references are broad enough and familiar enough to even the casual reader to make them easy to follow. In addition, Boucher writes all of this as a conventional mystery – that is, the reader is given the clues fairly in the course of the novel, though, of course, they are pretty well obscured by all the references to the Holmes stories.
Anthony Boucher's mysteries, unfortunately, are mostly forgotten today – and I think that’s a pity, because I believe he was very much a part of the American version of the “golden age” of mysteries. His plots, while convoluted – and The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars is no exception – always played fair with the reader. Boucher was a fan of Holmes – the book is dedicated to Sherlock Holmes – and there is enough to please any lover of the Holmes stories, from the most casual reader to a true Baker Street Irregular who delights in the kind of trivia that we find at the heart of the Holmesian adventures contained in this book.
Unfortunately, you’re going to have to go searching for this one – The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars is long out of print. Don’t be misled by the paperback with that title which seems to be available online – that is by a different author, and, I believe, is aimed at younger readers. If you like Sherlock Holmes, and if you are fond of a good, fair mystery story, told with more than a touch of humor, then do a little digging and find The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, by Anthony Boucher.
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To listen to the original podcast recording, click here.
Next week: Death Lights a Candle, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor.