Anthony Boucher was a literary renaissance man: an Edgar Award–winning mystery reviewer, an esteemed editor of the Hugo Award–winning Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a prolific scriptwriter of radio mystery programs, and an accomplished writer of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. With a particular fondness for the locked room mystery, Boucher created such iconic sleuths as Los Angeles PI Fergus O’Breen, amateur sleuth Sister Ursula, and alcoholic ex-cop Nick Noble.
When Metropolis Pictures announces plans to make a movie out of an Arthur Conan Doyle classic, it triggers outrage from a group of Sherlock Holmes fans called the Baker Street Irregulars. In hopes of calming their protest, the studio invites the five members to advise on the film, and even throws them a celebration in a house numbered 221B.
Also on the guest list is Los Angeles police detective A. Jackson. He was hoping to spend his night off hanging out at a Hollywood party with his brother, Paul, the famous actor. Instead he finds himself in one of the most bizarre murder cases he’s ever encountered, complete with cryptograms and a disappearing corpse, all of which results in a “delightfully farcical narrative, which offers a surprise on nearly every page” (The New York Times Book Review).
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The main trouble, thought Maureen, is the ideas Worth has about me. It had not been a pleasant scene that morning. At the thought, she smoothed her dress as though to wipe off the touch of Stephen Worth's hands. But personal revulsion and defense of one's virtue shouldn't interfere with handling publicity contacts, and F. X.'s memo sounded really worried. Dutifully she ran a comb through her short black hair, gave a moment's perfunctory attention to her face, and went off down the corridor to Mr. Weinberg's office.
That executive was crouched over a paper-strewn desk, shouting into a speaking apparatus. "So I don't want to see any professor! I don't care who he has letters from. One hundred and eleven insulting letters I have yet on my desk and I should talk to professors? He should live so long!
Maureen couldn't resist it. "He says he wants to give you English lessons, Mr. Weinberg," she said in Miss Blankenship's squeaky voice.
"English lessons!" Mr. Weinberg bellowed into the apparatus. "I'm Hermann Bing maybe, or Mike Curtiz? English lessons he wants to give me! I —" Some instinct warned him to turn. He saw Maureen. Slowly the little executive's gargoyle features went through a double take.
The Weinberg double takes are a Hollywood legend, as famous in their way as the corrosive wit of Dorothy Parker, the discomforting ribs of Vernon Crews, or the magnificent verbal creations of Samuel Goldwyn. Paul Jackson had once said that these retroactive reactions could be equaled only if Lubitsch were to direct Horton in slow motion. Such a triumph of the mobility of the human countenance is not easily to be described. The effect, however, for those unwise in theatrical argot, may be roughly compared to the appearance of a man with pixies in his brainpan slowly recalling what he said to the hostess last night.
"It's you," he pronounced, somewhat in the tones Selznick must have used when he saw Vivian Leigh's test for Scarlett O'Hara. "You're a smart girl, Maureen. You tell me what I should do."
Maureen read the constitution, the manifesto, and the incredible series of missives which the latter had evoked. At last she shook her head sadly. "There's nothing to do," she said. "You've got to fire Worth."
The thing on the desk buzzed. "Eleven thirty, Mr. Weinberg."
Automatically the executive reached out for the water carafe and the packet of sodium bicarbonate. "Give me a reason," he said.
She waved at the papers. "There's a hundred and eleven reasons, if you counted right. Look at the names signed to those — Christopher Morley, Rufus Bottomley, Alexander Woollcott, Vincent Starrett, Harrison Ridgly, Elmer Davis, John O'Dab. Why you simply can't afford to have these men against you, F. X. Take Woolcott alone. If he came out for a boycott on The Speckled Band, you'd never even get your investment back on it, let alone a cent of profit. I'm trying not to let my personal feelings about Worth influence me. Just from a business standpoint, you've got to get rid of him."
The little man smiled. "You are a good girl, Maureen. You don't yes me; no, you do better than that. You tell me what I wanted to be told. I was afraid maybe because I've been sore at Worth ... But now I know I'm right. So tomorrow I get rid of Stephen Worth."
"And just how do you propose to do that?"
Mr. Weinberg sprang from his bent-chromium chair and stiffened to his full five feet four inches of height. "Where did you come from, Worth?"
Even beside an ordinary man, Stephen Worth was a giant. Next to Mr. Weinberg he seemed nothing less than a titan. But he did not take advantage of his full height. He merely leaned heavily against the wall and answered in one syllable — a syllable which his publisher's reader had been forced to strike out with dogged monotony from page after page of his hard-boiled detective stories.
The buzzer sounded. "He just pushed his way in, Mr. Weinberg," Miss Blankenship's voice squawked. "I tried to tell him you were busy, but he just went right on in. I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Weinberg, but —"
"That's all right." Mr. Weinberg switched off the apparatus and turned to glare at the writer.
But Stephen Worth's eyes had lit on Maureen. "Hiya!" he said. "If it isn't the darling of the publicity office — the little colleen that plays hard-to-get when a man makes a pass at her and then comes sneaking into the boss' office."
Maureen dexterously avoided his outstretched arm. "I was meaning to ask you, F. X. Can I bill the studio for a new bra? Damage incurred in the line of duty?"
Mr. Weinberg looked up at the ex-detective with such concentrated scorn that he seemed to be looking down into a measureless and fetid abyss. "Mr. Worth," he announced, "you and Metropolis are through."
Stephen Worth laughed softly to himself — a rumbling laugh of self-conscious virility. "I thought you'd say that, F. X. When do you want me to leave?"
"You can't bluff me out of this," Mr. Weinberg continued. "I'll have you out of this studio if —" He cut himself short, and one of the Weinberg double takes began its slow progress across his face. "So when do I want you to leave?" he muttered. "When do I —? Today. This minute. Right away. As soon as possible." He was almost choking with relief. "Now," he added, to leave no doubt as to his meaning.
Stephen Worth dropped his heavy body solidly into the chromium chair meant only for little Mr. Weinberg. "Swell. You want me to leave, as you so succintly put it, now. All right. What happens then? First of all you've got to tell A. K. Now I owe that bastard four thousand dollars on the races and twenty-three hundred at roulette; he wants me around here, earning the studio's good money, or he knows he'll never see that sixty-three hundred again."
"So I'll answer for A. K.," Mr. Weinberg spluttered. "If he wants his six thousand so bad, he should sue you."
"Gambling debts aren't recoverable — that's one of those little points, F. X., that have made me the success I am. But what happens next? My agent comes to see you and calls your attention to several little clauses in my contract. You send him away with a bug in his ear, but he comes back. He comes back with a representative from the Screen Writers' Guild. And now you're beginning to get into real trouble. No, F. X., it isn't any use grabbing for the bicarb. That won't make you feel any better. You'll have to just get used to seeing me around here — at any rate till I've finished The Speckled Band."
Mr. Weinberg looked at the pile of Irregular messages on his desk. "All right. So I can't throw you out. Such a Schlemiel I must keep on the payroll. All right. But I tell you this: you don't adapt The Speckled Band. That property I turn over to somebody else. And you," he concluded in tones of excommunication, "you will write Speed Harris and His Space Ship, in twelve breath-taking episodes."
Worth snorted. "To put it briefly, F. X., like hell I will. Don't bluster. I've got you over a barrel, my fine Semitic friend, and your pants are slipping inch by inch. Read my contract, and learn what dimwits you've got in your legal department. They let a honey slip by them that time. You can switch me off to Speed Harris if you want; but if you do, you'll never produce The Speckled Band. I've got it in black and white — either I write that picture or nobody does."
"To me all this should happen!" Mr. Weinberg moaned plaintively. "But why, Mr. Worth? What has Metropolis done to you?"
Stephen Worth grinned unpleasantly. "Polly hasn't done a damned thing to me. It's just that this is my chance to show them up."
"Show who up?"
"These cockeyed pantywaist deductionists. These silly-frilly nancy- pantsy dabblers who think they can write about detectives. Solving murders oh! so cutely with a book on Indo-Arabian ceramics when they'd faint at the sight of a nosebleed. Holding hands in a ducky little daisy chain while they all murmur the sacred name of Sherlock Holmes. Sweet Christ, but they're going to learn something in this picture, and they're not going to like it."
"So because you were once a detective, we should ruin Metropolis? Mr. Worth, couldn't we —?"
Buzzer. "It's that professor, Mr. Weinberg," Miss Blankenship explained. "He says was that Stephen Worth he saw going into your office, because if it was he wants to come in, too. He says to tell you it's about the Baker Street Irregulars, whatever that is."
Worth guffawed. "A professor on my tail! That's a sweet one."
"Tell him I'm gone," Mr. Weinberg snapped. "Tell him I strangled Worth in cold blood. Tell him I'm a fugitive from justice. Tell him —" Slowly a new comprehension began to replace his annoyance. "Did you say the Baker Street Irregulars?"
"I think that's what he said, Mr Weinberg."
"So tell him to come in. Tell him to come right in."
While he had sardonically debated matters of contract, Stephen Worth had seemed almost sober. Now, as he jerked himself up from Mr. Weinberg's beautiful chair, a heavy flush crossed his face, brutalizing the handsome irregularity of his features. Maureen shrank back into a corner; she had seen him like this before.
"Baker Street Irregulars," Worth muttered with utmost loathing. "Baker Street Irregulars! ..." His growl rose almost to a roar.
Then Professor Furness came in. He was not the elderly academician that Maureen had subconsciously expected, but a lean man of thirty, dressed in what was obviously his Good Blue Suit. Lean, in fact, was a flattering adjective — scrawny might be better. His collar fitted badly, and his nose seemed too thin to support the pince-nez which were poised as though ready for instant flight.
All these details Maureen took in at first glance. Then the picture was shattered by the terrific swing of Stephen Worth's left.
Before Professor Furness could say a word, he lay stretched out cold on the polished, rugless floor of the office. Stephen Worth loomed above his carcass, swaying a little and rubbing his knuckles.
"See you in story conference, F. X.," he said, and swung out of the room.
At once Maureen was beside the poor professor, applying first aid from F. X.'s water carafe, and thinking rapidly. "Hush," she said at last, cutting across her employer's dire groans and predictions. "There's no danger of a suit. I'll have a talk with the professor and turn on the old charm. Things have come to a pretty pass if a smart Irish girl can't handle him."
Mr. Weinberg brightened a little. "My mother was Irish," he said wistfully, "but nobody ever believes me."
"And it's a good thing he came here," she went on rapidly. "It gives me a bright idea. Look. If these Irregulars are so interested in Holmes that they'll actually come here to Polly to protest ..." Deftly she sketched out the plan.CHAPTER 2
I METROPOLIS * PICTURES
June 26, 1939
Mr. Harrison Ridgly Editor, Sirrah
New York, N. Y.
Dear Mr. Ridgly:
Your protest against the assignment of Stephen Worth to the script of The Speckled Band has been received and personally considered by me. Unfortunately, contractual arrangements, which I am sure you as an editor will understand, prevent me from altering this assignment; but I have hit upon an arrangement which will, I hope, satisfy you.
I am inviting you and a group of your associates among the Baker Street Irregulars to be my guests in Hollywood during the making of this picture. You will have complete advisory authority over all details of adaptation and be in a position to guarantee authenticity and fidelity.
I will not affront your devotion to the literature of Sherlock Holmes by offering you a salary as technical advisor. As I say, you shall be my personal guest, with all travel and living expenses cared for and a liberal drawing account for personal expenses.
I hope you can see your way clear from your editorial duties during this slack summer season to accept my offer and render this service to the memory of Sherlock Holmes by guaranteeing him a worthy immortality on the screen.
I take this opportunity of expressing the longfelt gratitude of Metropolis Pictures for the treatment which its products have received in the review columns of Sirrah. Even your adverse criticisms have stimulated us as a needed, if sometimes harsh, corrective.
Sincerely yours, F. X. Weinberg
The magazine of male modernity
June 30, 1939
Mr. F. X. Weinberg Metropolis Pictures Los Angeles, California
Dear Mr. Weinberg:
Will a small black arm band, neat but not gaudy, be out of place in your select advisorial house party?
You could, of course, hardly know that your invitation reaches me so shortly after the death of my sister that it finds me hardly in the mood for critical sportiveness. Nevertheless, I am inclined to accept, if only because I hope that a change of scene may prove consoling.
It is perhaps as well that I am dictating this letter to one of my more efficiently prim stenographers. You are thus spared the rather ghastly stream-of-consciousness on Life, Death, Futility, and other such sophomoric capitalizations which are at present all too apt to pour forth from me at the thought of what my eminent father calls "our shocking bereavement."
In short, I have made up my mind in the course of this babbling dictation. I gladly accept your summons, if you are willing to number among the party the bright corpse which I must henceforth always carry with me. I owe a certain duty, I suppose, to the shade of Sherlock Holmes. Moreover, I am more than a little anxious, Mr. Weinberg, to see you execute a double take.
I have extended your longfelt gratitude for our treatment of Metropolis pictures to Harold Swathmore, our third-string reviewer. I am sure that it will keep him in a warm glow all through the next Kane Family opus.
Sincerely yours, Harrison Ridgly III
Miss Purvis (known to the staff of Sirrah as "Impurvis" because she could take Harrison Ridgly's dictation without blinking an eye) finished reading back the Weinberg letter and looked up from her notebook. "Do you want it sent just like that, Mr. Ridgly?" she asked.
Beside his neat and tasteful desk Harrison Ridgly stood tall and straight and dark. His lips barely stirred with speech, and not another muscle moved visibly in his body. "Yes," he said, "just like that. It's a stupid letter, committing me to a stupid action. You will send it as it is."
Miss Purvis' pencil lingered longingly over the sentence about the bright corpse, which could be so easily stricken out. "You're sure, Mr. Ridgly?"
A muscle in his brown forehead flicked tautly. "Yes."
"If you'd let me make it a little more formal —"
"Please!" The word burst out as though it were a curse. Its noise hung for a moment in the still room like smoke after an explosion.
Miss Purvis snapped the notebook shut. "Very well, Mr. Ridgly. Anything else?"
"Yes. Make arrangements with Fisher to take over my work while I am gone. He will disapprove strongly of my desertion, as he will doubtless term it, and resolve to do my job so well that the owners will consider giving it to him permanently. You may wish him luck from me."
"Is that all?"
"Yes. I shall sign the letter after lunch. Now go."
Harrison Ridgly had not moved all the time that Miss Purvis was in the room. He had not dared to move. Now he turned and looked across the room to the chastely framed photograph of the young girl in her coming- out gown. He could hardly focus his eyes to read the familiar inscription, in that foolish round hand. To the world's best brother from his Phillida.
He moved toward the picture. He had been wise to remain still while Miss Purvis was present. Movement requires coordination, and small rugs on smooth floors are a danger.
The cartoonists of rival publications (and even of his own) would have rejoiced in the sight of Harrison Ridgly III sprawled stupidly on the floor of his office. They would have thought it funny.
The perfectly Sirrah-styled suit was acquiring wrinkles which would have wrung its designer's sensitive heart. But its wearer had no thought for the things of Sirrah as he lay there, his eyes twisted upward to the photograph, his body shaken with horrible noises which he would have deemed ludicrous in another.
His mouth twisted. Perhaps he knew these sobs to be ludicrous even in himself. Even the grotesque sincerity of his woe could not keep the Ridgly mouth from twisting.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars"
Copyright © 1967 Estate of Anthony Boucher.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A new Sherlock Holmes adaption is in the works when a flurry of complaints from the Baker Street Irregulars, the oldest Sherlock Holmes fanclub, alerts the studio to the fact that the screenwriter has publicly declared his hatred for Holmes and his intention of humiliating the detective in the film. Contractually unable to fire him but aware that antagonizing the built-in fanbase is never a good idea, the studio compromises by bringing a handful of Irregulars in to oversee the work and take creative control. Everything goes well for about five minutes, until the screenwriter is found dead.In order for you to understand my reaction to this book, I should probably explain that a) a new Sherlock Holmes movie is in the works, starring the Borat guy as Sherlock Holmes and Will Ferrell as Watson, b) I adore Sherlock Holmes, and c) I loathe Will Ferrell's brand of humor to the very depths of my soul. That, I think, goes a long way toward describing the vicious pleasure I took in the premise. Vindictiveness aside, however, this book really is a delight for Sherlock Holmes fans. It was written in 1940 and really shows its age in some respects, but it's absolutely charming. The characters are all endearingly ridiculous, aside from the screenwriter, of course, who is appropriately painted as an absolute waste of existence. The mystery is both more complex and more campy than it first seems, and the dénouement is beautifully appropriate. The story drags a bit toward the middle, when each of the Irregulars gets to narrate their separate misadventures; it's especially bad if you're familiar with the Holmes stories, since you'll recognize where each narrative is going pretty quickly. Still, that's a small complaint in what is overall a seriously enjoyable mystery. I wouldn't recommend it for a non-Holmes fan, since even the characters (aside from the Irregulars) are sick of Holmes by the end of the story, but if you're the type who thinks the premise sounds fun, you're probably in for a treat.