I am bringing this out of the vault on the same day - Thursday, September 15, 2016 - that Bouchercon begins its annual convention, this year gathering in New Orleans. For those unfamiliar with the festivities, Bouchercon is the World Mystery Convention, the oldest and largest mystery conference in the world, attracting well over a thousand people each year. This year, there are nearly 1900 people scheduled to be here. There are hundreds of authors eager to meet more than a thousand readers and fans. The conference is named for Anthony Boucher, the tremendously influential author, editor and mystery critic. He died in 1968; the first Bouchercon was held in his honor in 1970 and has been held every year since then.
It's a huge party, and it honors a most singular man. To give you some idea of his writing, here is the review I wrote about one of his truly excellent books, The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, first published in 1940. The review is from 2007; I didn't start attending Bouchercons until 2010, so the convention isn't even mentioned in the review. More on that later.
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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!
As you must guess from the title alone, The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, by Anthony Boucher, 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 story was written, the irregulars included a great many famous writers and critics, such as Christopher Morley and Alexander Woollcott, among its ranks.
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.
A word or two about Anthony Boucher: he is probably better known to readers of science fiction and fantasy than he is today to mystery readers. Boucher was one of the founding editors of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and throughout the 1950s and 60s he edited an annual collection of fine science fiction stories.
His 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 satisfy anyone, from the most casual reader of the Holmes stories 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.
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While that last point remains true nearly a decade after I wrote it, I see that there appear to be used copies of out-of-print editions available on the market. I'd suggest talking to your favorite mystery bookseller to see if they have, or can find, a copy. If you don't have an independent mystery bookseller, you can check out Amazon's resellers or try Abe Books. It's really worth the effort.
If you'd like to see what others have had to say about The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, click here for an article from the GAD Wiki. If you want to know more about Boucher and his contributions to both mystery and science fiction, click here for a number of critical posts from the same source.
If you would like to listen to my original review (most of which appears above), you can do so by clicking here.
Next week: The Doorbell Rang, by Rex Stout.