book: Nine Times Nine (1940) by H.H. Holmes/Anthony Boucher

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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.

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19 thoughts on “book: Nine Times Nine (1940) by H.H. Holmes/Anthony Boucher

  1. as rebound by Boston Public Library in hardback so tightly that my wrists began to throb from the effort of holding the pages apart

    I love this book, but this comment struck a chord with me given how damn inelastic some book bindingd from the 1980s reprints seem to be. I have certain Carr novels where I’ve had to guess at the start of some sentences because I can’t prise the pages far enough apart to see the left-hand edge. You find them in a secondhand bookshop and go “Ohmygod, the spine is pristine!!”, then try to read it four months later and find yourself sweating profusely and unable to put on a formal shirt because your forearms bulk up so much.

    • I know what you mean. It’s actually the library rebind that’s the problem here: I have Margaret Millar’s The Fiend in the same International Polygonics edition and it handles just fine.

      Are they the Collier printings of Carr that you’re talking about? I seem to remember some of that line (not just Carrs) could be a bit of a trial.

      • It’s mainly the IPL paperbacks, the reprint series curated by Douglas G. Greene from the late 1980s — every single one is bound so tightly that I think the book itself would rupture rather than allow the spine to crack.

        They’re beautiful editions, I’m not complaining, but I had to find another version of The Sleeping Sphinx because there’s no way in sweet mercy I’m going to be able to put that much pressure through my thumbs for the duration of a whole book.

        Er, sorry, I appear to have skewed the conversation somewhat away from the topic at hand…

        • It’s mainly the IPL paperbacks

          Oh, I’m surprised. As I say, my IPL copy of The Fiend opens just fine. I have a Craig Rice from IPL somewhere in the house in IPL’s larger format, and I vaguely recall it being a bit stiff but nothing special. I think there’s another Millar somewhere, but you know how it is . . .

          When I arrived here in 1999 you could still find some of the IPL titles in the NYC remainder bookshops, and I foolishly didn’t grab every title I could see — we lived in a shoebox-sized apartment at the time (us and a cat!), so there was reason behind my caution; even so . . .

      • Oh, yes. It used to be a characteristic of a couple of the UK paperback houses — I recall NEL as especially guilty — that you had to guess the ends/starts of lines because of the binding. Trouble is, they tended to be shoddily produced, too, so that, if you did start a trial of strength with the binding, the next thing you knew you had a lap full of bits of book.

  2. I’ve never read any from this author by know this book and appreciate an expert and enthusiastic review. As to John Dickson Carr, I’ve read several. My favorite is “The Mad Hatter Mystery” (Gideon Fell).

    • I keep hoping one year to get to a Bouchercon, the crime-fiction convention named after him. One of these days . . .

      My favorite is “The Mad Hatter Mystery” (Gideon Fell).

      Ha! That’s one of the ones I like less — in the lower half of the ranking, for me. It’s interesting, following the crime-fiction blogs, how much the ratings vary of individual Carr titles between one fan and the next.

  3. I liked this book quite a lot myself, and the fact I actually worked out the locked room trick (highly unusual for me) kind of added to that.
    Imagine my disappointment though when I read the follow-up Rocket to the Morgue, and found it lacking in almost every department!

    • I’m astonished to discover that anyone worked out the locked-room trick in this one — it just seemed to me to be implausible beyond the bounds of conjecture!

      I dimly remember reading Rocket to the Morgue and being less than impressed. This may be why it took me so long to get round to 9 x 9.

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