This novel, the first of Boucher’s duo (bilogy?) featuring amateur detective Sister Ursula, both written as by H.H. Holmes (a moniker of a prolific 19th-century serial killer), is quite openly an homage to the work of John Dickson Carr: it’s dedicated to Carr and the best part of one of its chapters is devoted to an analysis of Carr’s famous “locked-room lecture” in The Hollow Man (1935; vt The Three Coffins). It reads rather like a Carr novel too, although it lacks some of the sprightliness, the sense of the Gothic and the constantly threatened iconoclasm — in fact, it’s percolated with a heavy dash of Catholicism.
Wolfe Harrigan makes a profession out of exposing religious charlatans and cultists. His principal current targets are the flamboyant Ahasver, who claims to be the immortal Wandering Jew and heads the increasingly influential Temple of Light, and the less successful Swami Mahopadhyaya Virasenanda, aka Hermann Sussmaul. Circumstances drag broke, jobless writer Matt Duncan into the ambit of the wealthy Catholic Harrigan family, and before he knows it Wolfe has offered him the post of ghostwriter and popularizer.
But then Wolfe is murdered in his study by, apparently, a tall man dressed in Ahasver’s characteristic yellow robe. Ahasver confesses that he committed the crime himself — or, at least, his astral projection did, because he himself has an uncrackable alibi. Besides, wasn’t the study almost hermetically sealed, with every possible exit locked or otherwise secured except one, which led to a small chapel where the most devout of all the Harrigans was praying?
So we have a locked-room “impossible” murder with a vengeance, and Matt himself is the witness to how impossible it all is! Enter Lieutenant Terence Marshall of the LAPD and family friend Sister Ursula, who just happens to be rather good at solving mysteries and has the advantage over Marshall of being able to bring her theological knowledge to bear . . .
There are two reveals in the denouement: the identity of the murderer and the way the locked-room trick was done. The first puzzle has been solved by Sister Ursula quite some while beforehand, and by the reader too, assuming s/he has some basic knowledge of English history. The second is far more complicated, fiendishly so — in fact, so fiendishly so that it exemplifies a problem I often have with locked-room mysteries: the mechanics of the trick are so improbably baroque that I don’t believe for one moment they’d work in real life.
No one expects classic detective stories to be realistic, but for me they shouldn’t be so implausible that the reader’s suspended disbelief comes crashing down. I could happily accept all the other artificialities of Boucher’s tale — the deliberately and humorously stereotyped characters, the caricature of Ahasver and his cult teachings, etc. — but the untanglement of the locked-room mystery had my eyes rolling almost out of their sockets.
The same’s true, though, when I’ve read the explanations at the end of some of Carr’s novels, so this characteristic doesn’t disqualify Nine Times Nine as a pretty damn’ fine read, at least in my opinion. A few of its attitudes are a bit dated, shall we say, but far less so than in many US novels of this era (Nine Times Nine was first published in 1940), and they’re countered by other comments that are pleasingly liberal for their day.
I read this in one of those jolly little International Polygonics paperback editions, as rebound by Boston Public Library in hardback so tightly that my wrists began to throb from the effort of holding the pages apart — try laying the book flat open and you’d be likely to get your fingers caught as in a mousetrap.