I don’t think it’ll come to anyone’s surprise in this place if I say that I am a big fan of Anthony Boucher – at least as a critic as, shame be on me, I have yet to read any of his fiction. He is probably the thinker past and present I feel most in common with and I’ve even been called one of his heirs, God only knows why. I also did a laudatory piece on him some time ago.
So yes, I am a Boucherophile (neologism mine) It doesn’t mean however that I don’t have any disagreements with him for I have several, some minor, some major as the one that motivates this post.
I’m currently in the process of reading Mary Roberts Rinehart’s short story collection Alibi for Isobel as part of a long overdue catching up with her work. I am, as you know well too, an ardent propagandist for the author of The Circular Staircase, having written positively about her many times in the past. I have nothing to add to that as of now, and this article is not a book review but the expression of my puzzlement at Boucher’s treatment of her and the whole so-called HIBK school.
The stories in Isobel have little in common but their wartime setting. They’re not even all crime fiction, which shouldn’t be surprising since Rinehart didn’t see herself as « only » a crime writer – it was indeed the most lucrative part of her work but not necessarily the one she prized most. What’s more, the few crime/mystery items in the collection may not be the best of the lot. The Clue in the Closet despite its promising title falls flat in the end because of crude plotting and lack of fair play in clueing. This is clearly the kind of story that Golden Age purists like Boucher objected to and that gave Rinehart such a dismal reputation as a mystery writer. The Lipstick on the other hand is much better plotted though relying on an age-old trick and reads quite smoothly – an author’s trademark. I don’t have read the title story yet, keeping it for last; I must admit however that my best liking goes to the non-crime stories such as the proto-feminist Once to Every Man or the melodramatic yet moving The Portrait. Rinehart’s abilities, her vivid writing and characterization and acute social observation, come to the fore there, leading us back to Boucher.
Boucher, as I’ve hinted at earlier, was no fan of Rinehart. He criticized her for being a messy plotter (something I won’t dispute, at least if we admit that it was not her main concern anyway) and a mawkish and long-winded writer pandering to a mostly « feminine » audience. He was just as skeptical – to put it mildly – of the HIBK school she supposedly influenced, though he had kind words for some of its representatives such as Mignon G. Eberhart and Mabel Seeley. He was not, to be fair to him, the only or the last one in this case – Howard Haycraft, Jacques Barzun or Julian Symons while disagreeing about everything else agreed nevertheless that HIBK was an inferior form of crime fiction of no serious critical interest at all.
The odd thing about it is that Boucher in the Forties and the Fifties became a vocal advocate for a new genre – domestic suspense – that like HIBK was mostly written by women and even recycled some of its infamous predecessor’s recipes and tropes. Only some slight differences in approach and treatment separate one of his favourite domestic suspense writers, Charlotte Armstrong, from the kind of « feminine » stuff he derided in the previous decade – but Boucher oddly never seemed to be aware of the continuity between both genres, a continuity that looked very much like filiation. Neither did he realize that some of the things he prized most about the new direction that crime fiction was taking – greater social naturalism for instance – had been initiated if not entirely fulfilled by the HIBK school. The fact was and remain today: No HIBK, no domestic suspense, no modern crime fiction.
Rinehart may not have reached Christie-like plotting heights – she was very much a survivor of an era when standards weren’t that exacting – but she was a great storyteller despite her tendency to pad things up for commercial rather than artistic reasons. She also wrote comparatively plain English at a time when overwrought or supposedly « witty » prose was the rule – giving her writing an oddly compelling oral quality as though the narrator was telling their story to the reader in person rather than writing it. Her great discovery, however, was that the detective and the criminal were not the only people of interest in a murder mystery and that a criminal narrative could and should focus on the other characters and how the mystery affected them. This insight, trivial as it may seem to us now, is the foundation of modern crime fiction whose resulting debt to Rinehart is an immense, if rarely acknowledged, one. It is surprising that Boucher of all people didn’t see that – and I wonder why. It may have been gender prejudice, but I don’t think so as he championed many a female crime writer before and after that. Maybe it was misplaced orthodoxy or a knoxian desire to severe crime fiction from its « popular » roots exemplified by a writer not « literary » enough to deserve scrutiny. Boucher not being here to answer the question, any reason you can think of is as good as any – but the failing remains.