RogerBW's Blog

Rocket to the Morgue, Anthony Boucher 26 December 2022

1942 mystery. On the eve of the USA joining the Second World War, self-important literary heir Hilary St. John Foulkes insists that someone is trying to murder him, and there's certainly no shortage of people who would profit by his death. Then he's found stabbed in the back in a locked room… Originally published as by "H. H. Holmes".

As a mystery, this works well, though as an experienced reader I had little trouble in working out what must be going on: it's clearly signalled, and there's a distinct lack of red herrings to distract one, to the point that even discussing details risks giving away the plot. There's clearly some authorial hesitancy to use what was by now the quite hackneyed device of the locked room and the impossible crime, particularly after John Dickson Carr had laid it all out neatly dissected in The Hollow Man (1935), and characters even comment on just how distinctive and even self-defeating a style of murder it is.

But also, and the reason why this book would now be read by more than just historical mystery buffs like me, it's a snapshot of the California SF community on the eve of the Second World War; several of the characters are very obviously drawn from the life, particularly for me Robert and Ginny Heinlein (Austin and Bernice Carter), L. Ron Hubbard (D. Vance Wimpole) and Jack Parsons (Hugo Chantrelle). These are the days when SF is still primarily published in magazines, and thoroughly despised by readers of "real" fiction like detective stories (Boucher of course lived in both worlds), but these are also the people who are trying to make SF its own form, to write something better than just a horse opera with the names changed. There are the fans, and the fanzines, and at least a passing mention of the conventions, in a way that's historically valuable as well as fascinating.

Yes, all right, the attractiveness of women is an intrinsic part of their description, while men are just men. Yes, there's a crime-solving nun who's clearly an homage to Father Brown. But if you are able to tolerate that sort of thing there's also a good story and an interesting and well-portrayed background.

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