Books: Boucher Mysteries Mirrored Berkeley Scene By PHIL McARDLE Special to the Planet

Tuesday June 28, 2005

Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) was a mystery writer and editor of immense prestige in his field. A long-time resident, he wrote two remarkable stories set here in Berkeley: The Seven of Calvary and The Compleat Werewolf. 

“Anthony Boucher” was a pen name. His real name was William Anthony Parker White. In 1978 I interviewed his widow, the late Phyllis White, for an article about him. She was a small, white-haired woman, well-spoken, a retired librarian. At the beginning of the interview, she treated me with a somewhat professional, impersonal friendliness, as though I were a library patron. But as we proceeded, she warmed up, and was forthcoming and helpful, providing me with information I could never have obtained elsewhere. We become friends, and she sponsored me for membership in the Mystery Writers of America. 

Her husband had died 10 years earlier, and she was still bereft. She did not like being a literary widow. But as she took me through their house, she showed me items she could not bear to part with, papers she planned to find homes for in university libraries, and writings she intended to see published. 

She kept first editions of his books in living room bookcases. His Edgar Awards were on the mantle. (These are small busts of Edgar Allan Poe awarded annually by the Mystery Writers of America for outstanding achievement.) To a mystery writer, an Edgar is the equivalent of an Oscar, and Boucher won several. She told me I was just too late to have seen his collection of phonograph records, rare recordings from opera’s “golden age,” which he shared with the public in weekly broadcasts of “Golden Voices” on KPFA. It had gone to the UC Santa Barbara music library a week before we met. 

Upstairs, an attic had been converted into an office years earlier as a place for Boucher to do his writing. Now it contained his huge collection of pulp magazines and novels, all carefully sorted and filed in orange crates. (Eventually these found a home at the University of Arizona.) The attic was hushed, incredibly still, and as we talked, we lowered our voices. There was something eerie about it. 

Lenore Glenn Offord, another Berkeley mystery writer, described Anthony Boucher to me as a man of medium height, with brown hair and near-sighted brown eyes. He had a pleasant voice, and his speech was clear and precise. In his youth he was a slapdash dresser, she said; later in life he became something of a dandy. He loved to go to the opera on first nights in white tie and tails. 

He might have distinguished himself in any field. Somewhat to his surprise, perhaps, he became the author of mystery novels, science fiction and fantasy, newspaper reviews, and (in the days before television) scripts for radio plays. He also taught writing at his home, and became a regular broadcaster on KPFA and KQED. In his later years, his wife said, he became an active layman in the Catholic Church, with a particular interest in ecumenicism. 

Phyllis White told me freelance writers found encouragement in the fact that, by staying in Berkeley, he showed it was possible for a writer to make a living outside New York or Hollywood. His erudition was so vast, however, that some of them did not quite know what to make of him. John Leonard, the author and book reviewer, remembered Boucher as “a gentle teacher” and “steadfast friend” who “was assumed by those of us who worked for Pacifica radio in the early sixties to be a Middle-European intellectual who had wandered by accident from the high road of Literature onto the bicycle paths of Pulp.” 

Actually, when he came to Berkeley as a graduate student in 1932, he intended to become a professor of foreign languages. Then he got caught up in the excitement of student theater. “I spent as much time,” he wrote, “in little theater (acting, directing, writing) as in curricular work, and finally decided that this appealed to me more than academic scholarship: I was going to be a playwright.” It was in the little theater that he met Phyllis Price, the daughter of a professor of German, and fell in love with her. When he got his degree in 1934, he set out to establish himself in Hollywood as a playwright and screenwriter. They planned to get married when he succeeded.  

But it was slower going in Hollywood than he expected. He got a job with a weekly paper, but it paid him in passes to the plays and concerts. His plays were performed in small theaters by non-equity players, but he could not find a publisher for them or get them put on by major producers, and he was unable to find work at any of the movie studios. “After a few years of not selling plays,” he wrote, “I tried a mystery novel.” 


The Case of the Seven of Calvary 

Boucher thought popular literature could hold up a mirror to its time and reflect it with a special kind of accuracy. His first novel, The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937), certainly does. Even though it is a murder mystery, it captures the easy going quality of life in Berkeley in the mid-1930s. Dr. John Ashwin, the novel’s amateur detective, is based on Professor Arthur Ryder, Berkeley’s great translator of Sanskrit literature. The Watson to his Holmes is Martin Lamb, a graduate student playwright, who resembles Antony Boucher himself. We are introduced to them in one of the most unusual opening scenes in American fiction:  

atha nalopakhyanam brhadacva unvaca. 

Here begins the episode of Nala. Brihadashava speaks,” Martin translated almost automatically. The warm spring air entering through the open windows of the classroom was quite enough to distract his attention from the Mahabharata. 

Dr. Ashwin rose somewhat heavily from behind the desk and began to pace the room as he recited the opening shloka. His voice took on a booming richness which fitted equally well his imposing figure and the magnificent Sanskrit verse. 

Martin was sincerely eager to keep his attention fixed upon his translation...But his thoughts insisted on wandering... 

“Thus speaking, the king released the swan,” he translated. 

“Thus having spoken,” Ashwin amended. 

Such sunny passages are the reason many Berkeleyans have always been fond of this novel. But the story also explores darker sides of student life. The murder which precipitates the story is the killing near International House of a well-known spokesman for a European peace movement. Another murder occurs during the rehearsal of Martin’s play in Wheeler Auditorium. All of this happens within the ambience of a group of students, mostly Catholics, who usually rendezvous at Newman Hall and International House.  

A few of them are “good” Catholics, but several are on their way out of the Church. They are sexually active, and two of the young woman in the group have had abortions. In this portion of the story, Boucher shows his mastery of the euphemisms and evasions which were part of the language of his time. This special speech was perfectly understood by everyone, and it allowed “open secrets” to remain “unknown.” Here, long before Roe v. Wade, Martin and Mona discuss the problems of their friend Lupe in that furtive, humiliating language: 

“Only Kurt and Lupe and I know, but if you too know it may help...It is no illness that Lupe has.” 

Martin nodded. “I had thought as much. 

“I am sorry for her. I know that it is wrong...There was only this way out. One of Lupe’s friends told her of this doctor in San Francisco--I will not tell you the friend’s name, but she has been to him twice. He was sure and safe....” 

Another of the novel’s open secrets is the discreet portrait of Dr. Ashwin, the man who is at the center of the novel. Boucher has drawn him as a solid and substantial figure, a mixture of the respectable and the eccentric. At the same time he makes it quite clear, to those who can see, that Ashwin is a closeted gay man. 

In 1938, after The Seven of Calvary was published, and after she completed her degree in librarianship, Anthony Boucher and Phyllis Price got married.  


The Compleat Werewolf 

Five years later, Boucher wrote The Compleat Werewolf, a comic fantasia so deeply rooted in Berkeley that no one else could have written it. It is remarkable in its picture of Berkeley in the early years of World War II. It captures the small town quality of the city which was beginning to fade away under the stress of war, and it evokes the aura of mystery surrounding the UC scientists. “Everybody” suspected they were up to something astounding, but nobody knew what (except possibly George Stewart, who made a shrewd guess). It amplifies the otherwise subliminal presence of spies and counterspies. The cast of characters includes a lycanthropic assistant professor, a magician who actually does the Indian rope trick, a glamorous young Hollywood movie star, religious charlatans, German spies, and miscellaneous other Berkeleyans, including a talking cat.  


The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 

In 1945 Boucher’s career entered a new phase. “A chance cocktail party meeting led me into radio,” he remembered, “and for three years I was plotting as many as three half-hour shows a week.” He said it was fun and hard work to write for “The Adventures of Ellery Queen,” “The Casebook of Gregory Hood,” and “The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce reprised their roles from the popular Holmes film series). His principal collaborator was the late Dennis Green. They divided the work: Boucher devised the plots, and Green clothed them in dialog. All in all, Boucher plotted some 150 half-hour dramas in three years. “Radio and I,” he later wrote, “began to collapse about the same time.” 

Phyllis White let me read some of Boucher’s radio scripts. As the years went by, and new books by him appeared—Exeunt Murderers, Multiplying Villainies, and others—I thought the scripts must be moldering away in the rare book room of some university library. But about ten years ago, Ken Greenwald, an archivist at Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters, had the idea of turning the scripts for the Sherlock Holmes program into a book of short stories. (He described radio scripts accurately as “a long lost medium of writing”). The happy result was The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, “Based on the Original Radio Plays by Denis Green and Anthony Boucher,” and dedicated to Mary Green and Phyllis White. With its appearance, Anthony Boucher made his last bow to the public.