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THE WORLD OF ANTHONY BOUCHER
Francis M. Nevins
An Anthony Boucher walks the earth but once. He treated every day of his adult life as the bountiful universe’s invitation to create, to enjoy and help others enjoy creations, to care. Whatever he touched he made come alive with his informed love. He excelled at all he did, and what he did best no one will ever do better.
He was a native Californian, born in Oakland on August 21, 1911 with the rather ordinary name of William Anthony Parker White. Both his parents were doctors but his father died seven months after the boy was born and his grandfather, a lawyer and Civil War veteran, helped William’s mother raise him. “His grandfather... meant a lot to him,” Boucher’s widow said a few years before her own death. “He had come to America from Scotland, where he had been an iron worker in Glasgow. I think there was an arrangement for men to get free passage if they would fight in the Civil War. I doubt he could have afforded it otherwise. I gathered he was something of a rake. Quite an old rogue. My husband enjoyed that in people.”
Asthma and other ills kept William bedridden for half his childhood and made him a voracious reader and writer even in youth. Despite missing school so often, he was a bright and precocious boy—so gifted in fact that Stanford University researchers included him in a special group of California children whose future careers were to be studied for clues to the origins of genius.
Early vocational aptitude testing indicated that he should become an architect, and his first intellectual interests were scientific in nature, but in his mid-teens he turned decisively to language and literature. At age 15 he made his first fiction sale, a short spoof he called “Ye Goode Olde Ghoste Storie” (Weird Tales, January 1927) and later described as “so abominably written...that the editor who bought it must have had a sadistic grudge against his readers.” His health improved in high school and college so that he was able not only to keep up with his studies but to immerse himself in dramatics and journalism, to go regularly to plays and concerts and movies, to start collecting stamps, coins and phonograph records, and to write—stories, plays, book reviews, translations, poetry in Spanish and German. He graduated from Pasadena High in 1928 and from the University of Southern California in 1932, taking with him from USC a Bachelor of Arts degree, a Phi Beta Kappa key and a fellowship to the University of California at Berkeley. While studying there for his M.A. he met Phyllis Mary Price (1915-2000), who was in her first year of college and a few years later was to become his wife.
“I met my husband at a student party at my parents’ house,” Phyllis White recalled. “My father was Lawrence Marsden Price, of the University of California German Department, and my parents often entertained students. I remember the first time he came to our house he addressed just one remark to me. He asked whether I knew what became of the cookies. After he had been to a couple of parties at my parents’ house, he invited us all to dinner at an apartment he had near the campus with his mother. At the end of the dinner he made a date with me to go to the theater with him.
“His mother was an unusual woman because in her time there weren’t so many woman doctors. And what was also pretty unusual for her time, she smoked and drank too. She was about average height with white hair and blue eyes. She was very intelligent and very opinionated. We used to have lively discussions. She was a Republican and we were Democrats. The fact that we were to her left made us personally responsible for everything the Communists did.
“My first date with my future husband was the first date I ever had. I never dated in high school. One of the things we talked about was how much we liked the old theater stock companies. That was a great institution but it had died by the time we met. There was at that time an attempt to revive it in Oakland and we went to check it out.” The play they saw, at the old Fulton Theater, was called Gambling, Gambling! “It was a bit disap-pointing. It wasn’t like the real old-time stock companies at all.”
William Anthony Parker White was one of those brilliant students who never needed to study. Despite a courseload in German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Sanskrit, he spent most of his time writing, acting and directing in the little theater movement, and continued to attend as many plays, movies, concerts and football games as he could squeeze in. He had concentrated heavily on language courses with the original aim of becoming a teacher but decided early in his two-year stint at graduate school that academia was not for him. “One reason,” said Phyllis White, “was that he felt he didn’t have the patience to make it as a teacher. Another thing that bothered him was that he was surrounded by people who took no interest in contemporary popular literature but at the same time were trying to research the popular literature of a few centuries back.” Rejecting the professorial life, he resolved instead to become a writer. In 1934, after completing his Master of Arts thesis (“The Duality of Impressionism in the Recent German Drama”) and receiving his graduate degree, he returned to Los Angeles in the hope of launching a literary career. Discovering that the Library of Congress catalogues already listed 75 authors named William White, he adopted the byline of Anthony Boucher (his own second name plus the maiden name of his maternal grandmother, which rhymes with voucher) and wrote stories and poems and plays and translations with concentrated fury. And sold not a word.
His only published work during this period was the theater and music criticism he wrote for a political weekly, the Los Angeles United Progressive News, beginning in 1935. He was paid in the form of free tickets to plays and concerts, no cash. As for the quality of his unpublished stories and dramas of those years, he said in 1952, “when in morbid moments I now go back and reread them, I’m ashamed of my exceedingly slow development as a writer....I, a dull and muddy-mettled rascal, went on well into my middle twenties producing stuff for which unprofessional is the kindest epithet.”
In 1936 he tried his hand at a classical detective novel, because of the discipline a strict form would impose on him and out of admiration for puzzlemasters like John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. The manuscript was sent out to eight publishers and rejected by each. Then one day early in 1937 Lee Wright, mystery editor at Simon & Schuster, picked that submission at random out of the slush pile and took it home to read. At two the next morning she woke up her husband with the excited cry that she’d just found the first unsolicited manuscript she ever wanted to publish.
THE CASE OF THE SEVEN OF CALVARY (1937) is set on the Berkeley campus and features as amateur detectives the erudite professor of Sanskrit Dr. Ashwin and his eager young graduate student Martin Lamb, who’s a transparent stand-in for Boucher himself. The model for Ashwin was Professor Arthur William Ryder (1877-1938), who had taught Boucher Sanskrit at Berkeley. “I never met Dr. Ryder,” Phyllis White recalled, “but I used to hear a lot about him. Tony was studying with him when we met. A pleasant habit of Dr. Ryder was to invite my husband over for an evening of talk occasionally, and he would have on hand a bottle of Scotch. At the end of the evening he would present him with what was left to take away with him.” No wonder Boucher felt inclined to say thanks by making his mentor the model for the detective character in his first novel. Ashwin is a Sanskrit word meaning a rider. The plot of THE CASE OF THE SEVEN OF CALVARY hinges on a fairly obvious alibi gimmick but Lee Wright’s excitement over the manuscript was well justified. No other mystery so lovingly evokes the academic atmosphere and the joys of learning and thinking as this whodunit debut.
In May of 1938 and on the strength of first success Boucher married Phyllis Price, who meanwhile had graduated from the University of California’s Library School. “He was a Catholic so the wedding was at Newman Hall. That was the old Newman Hall, which has been torn down for parking.” The newlyweds moved to Los Angeles, where Phyllis worked as a librarian until the birth of their first child. While hoping for a screenwriter’s contract at a movie studio, Boucher wrote and sold six more detective novels. Four of these deal with amateur of crime Fergus O’Breen, a sort of Southern California Ellery Queen with brogue, and/or his LAPD counterpart, Lieutenant Jackson. The other pair, published under the byline of H.H. Holmes (the real-life pseudonym of 19th-century mass murderer Herman W. Mudgett), star Sister Ursula of the Order of Martha of Bethany, a nun variant on G.K. Chesterton’s immortal Father Brown. All of Boucher’s seven novels hold up well today as specimens of the grand deductive tradition, full of locked-room puzzles and bizarre clues and intellectual fireworks, enlivened by the author’s love of language and literature and theater and opera and Sherlock Holmes and science fiction and bawdy humor and the tolerant, socially concerned wing of the Catholic Church. Like his idols Doyle and Chesterton and Carr and Queen, Boucher infused the classical detective form with his own multifarious enthusiasms, and enriched the genre in the process.
His career as a novelist ended when he found work at which he was even better, writing about the novels of others. In early 1942 the family moved back to Berkeley, which was to be Boucher’s home base for the rest of his life. “Larry, our first son, was with us,” Phyllis White said, “and we were soon joined by his brother James [Marsden White]. For the first five years we lived in a rented house on Ellsworth Street. Then we moved to our own house on Dana Street and we never moved again. Berkeley suited my husband just fine as a place to live. He liked being near the University, where he could use the library and attend the sporting events and the concerts. He particularly liked being near San Francisco.”
Between October 1942 and the summer of 1947 Boucher spent much of his time writing the material collected here: articles and reviews covering mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and other books for the San Francisco Chronicle. As a result he had to cut back his own imaginative output to an average of four or five magazine stories a year, either mysteries or fantasy-science fiction or, like most of the short exploits of Fergus O’Breen, both at once. Perhaps his most fondly remembered “pure” detective stories of the period are the cases of alcoholic ex-cop Nick Noble which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), but there were others as well—Sister Ursula stories, O’Breen exploits and non-series tales—and all are represented in EXEUNT MURDERERS (1983), a collection I was privileged to edit.
Boucher’s short mystery stories, like his mystery novels and science fiction, reflect all the interests and enthusiasms that filled his life, with religion, opera, football, politics, movies, true crime, record collecting and an abundance of good food and wine alongside the clues and puzzles and deductions. His stories are further enhanced by a dimension whose value has increased with the passing years. “He used to say,” Phyllis White remarked, “that the heresy of our age is the perceived dichotomy between art and entertainment: if something is one, it cannot be the other. Things that are now being studied in school were in their own time great popular successes. The public avidly awaited the next installment of a current Dickens novel. There was a popular following of the Elizabethan theater and of the Greek theater. He used to say you could get a better idea of just what it was like to be alive in that time from reading the fiction of an earlier period than you could from reading a factual history.” In his critical writing Boucher stressed again and again the function of mysteries as (in Hamlet’s words to Polonius about the players) the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time. The whodunits of any period bear witness to later generations about the way we lived then, and Boucher’s tales of the early and middle 1940s, with their ambience of rationed consumer goods and gung-ho patriotism and defense plants and rumor mills and returning combat heroes, capture the sensibility of the American home front during World War II like nothing else in the genre.
In those years the tradition of the amateur mastersleuth whose brilliance solves crimes where police work failed was still vital and flourishing, and to devotees of that tradition the roots of Boucher’s protagonists will be evident. In Nick Noble for instance there is quite clearly a bit of the historic Poe and even more of Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner. Boucher created the character in 1942 for the then infant Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is still happily with us (if only Boucher were himself!) almost sixty years later. The Screwball Division was a translation into colloquial American of THE DEPARTMENT OF QUEER COMPLAINTS in Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr’s 1940 collection of that title. The Chula Negra was based on a little Mexican cafe on Second Street in Los Angeles where in the mid-1930s Boucher and other United Progressive News journalists “used to gather to talk about the stories we were going to write and eat the best lengua en mole I’ve ever tasted and drink sherry...at ten cents per water-glassful.” Sister Ursula, as we’ve seen, derives from Father Brown and Fergus O’Breen, as the cadence of his name suggests, from Ellery Queen.
During the years he wrote most of his short detective stories he also edited his first two anthologies, THE POCKET BOOK OF TRUE CRIME STORIES (1943) and GREAT AMERICAN DETECTIVE STORIES (1945), both of them prized collector’s items today. In addition he translated several Georges Simenon stories for publication in EQMM and did other translations from the Spanish and Portuguese. On one of his regular business trips to New York he became a charter member of the Mystery Writers of America organization (MWA). “He was always proud of carrying card number five,” Phyllis said. Along with fellow Chronicle reviewer Joseph Henry Jackson, he took the lead in forming a San Francisco scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars, giving himself the designation Brother Scanlon of the Scowrers. “My husband was rather ahead of his time in his views as to the equality of women. The Baker Street Irregulars was a stag organization. He insisted that there must be not only Scowrers but also Mollies.” (For the benefit of tyros in the literature of Sherlock Holmes I should mention that both the Scowrers and the Molly Maguires figure prominently in the 1915 novel THE VALLEY OF FEAR, fourth and last of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book-length Holmes tales.)
In collaboration respectively with Denis Green and Manfred B. Lee, Boucher wrote scripts for the Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen radio programs. The Case Book of Gregory Hood, a detective series heard irregularly on the Mutual radio network between 1946 and 1950, was created and scripted by Boucher and Green and at various times starred Gale Gordon, Elliot Lewis and Martin Gabel as the San Francisco importer-sleuth. “Even during the period when his main occupation was writing radio plays,” said Phyllis White, “shows that emanated from Los Angeles and New York, he stayed in Berkeley and commuted. He was on a schedule of Hollywood roughly every six weeks and New York every six months.” While juggling all these activities, Boucher also found time to teach a writing class once a week in his home. Among his students who went on to professional careers were the science-fiction writers Ron Goulart and Philip K. Dick and the novelists David Duncan and Jean Backus. “For a while,” Phyllis added, “he was in the Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club. And for a while there was a group of serious students and collectors of the limerick....Then there was a group of people who got together once a month to drink wine, and I am sure there are many other things that I am not thinking of.”
What was it like to live with Boucher while he was working and playing so intensely? The most vivid account we are ever likely to have is that of his older son, Lawrence White. “As I remember, a typical work day for my father would begin with the sound of the alarm clock somewhere around eight o’clock in the morning. The purpose of the alarm clock was to notify anyone else who was awake, usually my brother or myself, to start giving wake-up calls every few minutes. If that didn’t work, we had to escalate the wake-up shakes and deliveries of hot coffee passed under the nose until he could finally get himself out of bed. After he got up it was quite a while before he could work himself into a normal breathing pattern. He was a lifelong asthmatic. He never had what most of us consider a healthy day in his life. The period right after waking up was the worst for him. After a considerable breathing stabilization period and some coffee, he would be ready to repair to his study for his first workshift of the day, usually around nine or ten o’clock.
“His study was on the top floor of our large split-level house, on the side where he got the sun in the morning. This was nice because our cat gravitated toward the sun, and so he would have his muse there in the corner by the window, lying there saying, ‘Yes, it is time to get to work.’ So the door was shut, and he was doing whatever he did. He might emerge around midday to come down to the kitchen, fix himself a nice tartare steak, and return to his study until about four o’clock in the afternoon. At this point he would try to nap for a couple of hours until dinner time. Then we went through the whole waking up ritual again between six and seven o’clock; usually he’d go through a review copy while he was waking up.
“We always had dinner together in the evenings, which I remember as a very pleasant time. We were all on our own for the other meals. Dinner was the one time of the day when everyone was together, but after dinner he was back to his study for another four or five hours of work. After my brother and I were in bed, at eleven or twelve o’clock, we could often hear my father and mother playing records from their large opera collection and talking animatedly. They both liked to stay up until two or three o’clock in the morning. But generally my father’s schedule was to put in two shifts on a normal, full workday. We had to go through this terrible waking up period twice a day.
“The actual process of his work was not really visible to me. I saw a lot of reading. He seldom went anywhere without a review copy under his arm or in front of his face. I could hear a lot of one finger typing and the occasional slap of cards from some solitaire breaks. I couldn’t hear him working the cyphers or cryptograms and double-crostics and other forms of what he called relaxation that he would sometimes do for breaks. Occasionally large envelopes would be passed out of the study to be taken to the nearest mailbox. His level of concentration I am sure was quite high when he was in there. He didn’t care too much to be disturbed....
“The study was a large room, I guess about twelve by twenty feet, maybe even larger because it was lined with books all the way around. The windows were not covered but every other part of the wall was. The main type of bookcase was an orange crate, which was nice because it is modular and you could stack books two deep. In his study he had his mystery collection, his science fiction collection, his Sherlock Holmes collection, his true crime collection, his limerick collection, his pornography collection (very small—it mostly overlapped the limerick collection), and a lot of reference books. They were mostly books on words and diction-aries in many languages. There wasn’t much of what you would call office equipment—a typewriter, a few rubber stamps.
“It seemed to us as children that our father was kind of a rationed commodity because he was around so much, but yet he was off limits so much of the time. From my perspective now I see we probably had more time with him than most kids do with fathers who go to work and have golf and a bunch of other things; they’re not home very much. There was a lot of play time, which kind of had its own schedule, but competed very strongly with the work schedule and the deadlines. No matter how bad the pressures, among the entertainments were: going to plays (musical comedies were big on the agenda); opera (they didn’t drag us kids along to that); a lot of fine dining; a lot of sports spectating, which my mother didn’t participate in; and lots of home table games. There were lots of parties involving the local writing crowd, and we went at least once per year to Playland at the Beach.
“My father got involved in so many things. He went to all the football games, the Cal basketball games, track meets, rugby games, gymnastics. He was doing all this just on the side.”
Perhaps Boucher’s most lasting contribution to world literature came in the months after he’d left the Chronicle and was supporting himself and his family with periodical and radio work. Scholar of Latin American mystery fiction that he was, Boucher translated from Spanish, and persuaded his colleague in crime Frederic Dannay (Ellery Queen) to publish, the first story by Jorge Luis Borges to appear in the English language (“The Garden of Forking Paths,” EQMM, August 1948). But his most important editorial and critical accomplishments still lay ahead of him.
During the late 1940s, while his science-fiction reviews were appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Boucher’s reviews of current mystery fiction were being published in occasional EQMM columns and in odd corners of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Beginning July 1, 1951, he took over as the Times’ regular mystery critic, and his “Criminals at Large” column graced every issue of the Book Review for just short of the next seventeen years. Although his primary allegiance was to the fair-play detective novels of the sort he used to write himself, he was so eclectic in taste as to appreciate all kinds of crime fiction—suspense, Gothic, espionage, psychological, farce, private eye, police procedural, high adventure—and he insisted in his first Times column that “the important distinction is not between the schools of the whodunit but between the good and bad books whatever the school.”
By practicing that credo Boucher brought mystery criticism to a perfection it will never see again. Six or eight times a week for almost seventeen years, he would tell us whether a book was good of its kind, whether the author succeeded within the chosen framework or formula. When a whodunit was truly excellent his praise would ring to the sky, as when he reviewed 23-year-old Ira Levin’s first novel, A KISS BEFORE DYING (NYTBR, October 25, 1953): “.... superlatively enviable sheer professionalism....Levin combines great talent for pure novel writing—full-bodied characterization, subtle psychological exploration, vivid evocation of locale—with strict technical whodunit tricks as dazzling as anything ever brought off by Carr, Rawson, Queen or Christie.” If the book was a weak effort with some saving grace, he’d pinpoint the flaws precisely and take pains to note the good side: “....a slow-moving routine plot, weakly detected, but partially redeemed by a convincing first-hand picture of northernmost Alaska.” To the hopelessly shoddy or inept work he’d give short shrift but usually with a dash of wit, as when he called a particularly boring John Rhode novel “the dreariest Rhode I have yet traversed.” He never wrote maliciously.
Did I say never? Well, hardly ever! On the occasions when he encountered a book so atrocious it should never have been published at all, he didn’t hesitate to say so bluntly. And during the early 1950s, the evil days of McCarthyism and HUAC, his single bete noire was Mickey Spillane, whose best-selling thrillers Boucher despised for their neo-fascist political slant, joy in sadism, sniggering approach to sex and slapdash prose and plots, all the antitheses to Boucher’s own values which were rooted in Christian intellectualism and the liberal humanist tradition. In the 1960s when Spillane’s influence had faded, Boucher mellowed toward the creator of Mike Hammer and began to see in him the last of the old pulp storytellers. His take on Spillane’s first novel, I, THE JURY (1947), is included in this collection.
Boucher was an awesomely rapid reader, capable of finishing and fully comprehending a novel in two to three hours. After the reading he’d arrange all the relevant information about the book, from bibliographic details to a plot summary to any factual errors he’d caught, on one or both sides of a 3x5 card.
The space limitation led him to employ his own system of abbreviations on these cards: OH, for instance, stood for Our Hero, and IH for Idiot Heroine, a creature he must have encountered hundreds of times in so-called novels of romantic suspense. On completing the file card he’d write his review of the book, a process that generally took him thirty minutes or less. Even though most of the titles Boucher reviewed are long forgotten, his thousands of Chronicle and Times critiques are so full of wit and insight and infectious readability as to defy being laid down. Any publisher with the sense and tenacity to assemble all of them in book form will have given us the definitive critical history of the genre during one of its richest quarter centuries. For now the present collection from the Chronicle must suffice.
Boucher lived and worked at 78 rpm while the rest of the world revolved lazily at 33. His speed-reading gift left him many hours for a legion of other activities during his years with the Times. Through most of the 1950s Boucher and his colleague J. Francis McComas co-edited the monthly Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and the annual BEST OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION anthologies culled from the magazine. One of Boucher’s duties was to check the scientific accuracy of submitted manuscripts, and thanks to his boyhood interest in science, he said, a bell would ring in his head whenever he read a questionable statement of technical fact. Boucher, McComas wrote years later, “combined an unerring sense of what was `commercial’ with excellent literary taste....He was essentially a kind editor... especially gentle with beginning writers....If a submission showed any merit at all, he was ever ready to take the time for written encouragement, with detailed suggestions for plot revision, or character strengthening, or style polishing....His proudest boast was the number of first stories he had bought.”
And somehow he still found time for other work. He and McComas co-edited the excellent but commercially unsuccessful magazine True Crime Detective during the last year (Fall 1952-Fall 1953) of its brief life. He wrote a monthly review column in EQMM for much of his tenure with the Times. He and several other members of the Northern California chapter of MWA turned out a collaborative suspense novel, THE MARBLE FOREST (1951), which was adapted into director William Castle’s 1958 movie chiller MACABRE. His science-fiction reviews as H.H. Holmes migrated east from the Chicago Sun-Times to the New York Herald-Tribune. He wrote entries on Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner for a new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. From 1962 through 1967 he edited the annual BEST DETECTIVE STORIES OF THE YEAR anthologies, supplying not only warm and thoughtful introductions to each tale he selected but also an invaluable “Yearbook of the Detective Story” appendix listing the year’s short story collections, anthologies, prize-winning crime novels, and sad but necessary notes on the mystery writers who had died during the year. For Pacifica’s public radio station KPFA he conducted a regular mystery-review program. He served as regional vice-president and eventually as national president of MWA and won three richly deserved Edgar awards from the organization for his criticism. He selected and wrote introductions for the novels in several series of quality paperback mystery reprints. And to every piece of work he brought such enthusiasm and knowledge and love that he seemed not to be working at all but just having fun.
Superficially he might have resembled the hopeless workaholic but Boucher’s lives as writer, editor and critic were never the alpha and omega of his existence. He had enough hobbies for a small army—gourmet cooking, wine culture, football and basketball, Gilbert & Sullivan, theology, limericks, multilingual Scrabble, poker—and gave time and attention to each. Indeed his kitchen skills were such that for a period during World War II when his wife had her hands full with two small children, Boucher took over as the family cook, and despite wartime rationing and food shortages did better than satisfactorily.
“Another development,” Phyllis White said, “was his turning pro with what had been a lifelong hobby. He had always been an opera buff and a collector of records. As a boy he laid the foundation for his record collection back in the Twenties when the new orthophonic records were introduced and the old acoustic records were sold off for a dime. He acquired quantities of records of the great singers of the so-called golden age of opera. In later years he kept haunting thrift shops and got on the mailing lists of specialist dealers....After his death, his record collection was acquired by the University of California for their music library at the Santa Barbara campus.” Around that collection of more than nine thousand old operatic discs he built his public radio series Golden Voices, which ran on KPFA every Sunday evening from 1949 until his death. “Each week he would take up a different singer, talk about the career, and play illustrations from his collection. This led to television work at KQED—programs about the San Francisco Opera and interviews of singers.” An opera buff par excellence, he loved to put on top hat and white tie and tails once a year for the San Francisco Opera’s gala first nights. He wrote countless notes for the company’s printed programs and, from 1961 until his death, served as local correspondent for the Metropolitan Opera’s magazine Opera News, arguing for increased attention to the form’s dramatic aspects. “He served one term as president of the Berkeley Democratic Club,” said Phyllis, “and two terms on the State Central Committee.” After giving up political activity on doctors’ orders he remained in constant demand as a speaker on campuses, at liberal and labor fund-raisers, at conventions of science-fiction fans. And overarching all his work and all his play (the two for him being indistinguishable) were family and faith. He was committed to Catholicism with all his fervor and learning and love, donating time to the weekends of spiritual renewal sponsored by his parish church, volunteering as a lay reader at Sunday Mass in the mid-1960s following the liturgical reforms of Vatican Council II, helping to translate some of the liturgy from Latin into contemporary English.
What makes Boucher’s many-lives-in-one even more astounding is that he so rarely enjoyed a day of truly robust health. Although he compared himself to the sundial with the motto “I count only the sunny hours” in his ability to blot out weakness and pain, he and Fred Dannay often said to each other only half in jest “that if both of us had been blessed with good health, how much more we could have accomplished!” Bouts of illness often forced Boucher to scrap or postpone projects to which he’d made commitments. But his spirit outfought his body and he kept working with courage, gusto and relentless intelligence. Until the spring of 1968.
That was when he was admitted to Kaiser Foundation Hospital and diagnosed as suffering from advanced lung cancer—too late for surgery to do any good. “He never knew about the cancer,” Phyllis White said, “because it was very hard to diagnose him and by the time that they figured it out, he was out of it and couldn’t be told anything.” On April 29, at the unbearably early age of 56, he died. What he did with his life would have been staggering if he’d lived ten times as long.
The eulogy at his funeral was read by Father Brian Joyce, his closest friend among the clergy. “He had that quality so characteristic of the truly Christian and of the fully human life,” the priest said, “the quality of joy.” Like the two other deeply religious major figures in crime fiction, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, Boucher taught with his life a lesson of inspiration to people of his own faith and of another and of none: that living creatively is itself a sacrament, ennobling and liberating those who live that way, so that they relate to their lives as God is said to relate to the universe. He was one of those who make us proud we are of his species, who give us ideals for our own lives. We’ll never see his like again. An Anthony Boucher walks the earth but once.
This book is organized in a simple and straightforward way which I trust Boucher would have approved. Part I brings together the articles on mystery fiction that he wrote for the Chronicle once a month; Part II collects his weekly columns reviewing the current mystery crop; Part III contains the generally longer reviews in which he covered other kinds of books ranging from fantasy and horror to a new translation of the Bible. All material in parentheses is Boucher’s. Material in brackets is my own, added where I felt it necessary to explain something relevant to Boucher’s remarks that he took for granted or that happened after his comments were published. I’ve taken the liberty of mitigating Boucher’s tendency to use semicolons, commas and capitalized words where they struck me as distracting, and of correcting his rare factual slips and the much more common typographic errors in the published versions of his material.
This book is a reality only because fellow Boucherolater Karen Duncan located, reproduced and sent me copies of the hundreds of Chronicle pages on which Boucher material appeared. Ecstatic hours of poring over those photocopied pages convinced me that these treasures had to be shared with the world no matter what it took. My secretaries Pam Boyer and Mary Dougherty deserve thanks for their help in putting the material on disk, and Saundra Taylor, curator of manuscripts at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, for giving me access to the carbons of Boucher’s essay and review typescripts. This project has brought me many pleasures but also one great sadness: that Phyllis White did not live to see this tribute to her husband published.
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