THE CASE OF THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS (1940) by Anthony Boucher
reviewed by Barry Ergang
Mystery lovers who haven't read it will probably find The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars by Anthony Boucher a lot of fun. It combines bizarre situations, action, humor, lively and intelligent prose, and the advancement of several plausible solutions before the actual one is revealed.
Stephen Worth, ex-private detective turned hardboiled mystery novelist and sometime screenwriter under contract to Metropolis Pictures, is supposed to write a screen adaptation of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which will be produced by F.X. Weinberg. When word of this makes the newspapers, Weinberg starts receiving irate letters from the Baker Street Irregulars. The want the screenplay entrusted to someone who reveres the Canon as they do, not a “rat,” as they refer to Worth, who writes hardboiled fare. For his part, Worth contemptuously dismisses the BSI as a bunch of “deductionists.” The studio's publicity director, Maureen O'Breen, who has no liking for Worth, a heavy-drinking lecher and prankster, suggests that Weinberg simply take him off the film and assign another writer. When Weinberg tries to persuade Worth to work on a different project, Worth balks at the idea and points to a contractual clause that effectively prevents him from being replaced involuntarily. From his position between rock and hard place, Weinberg hits on a solution and sends letters to each of the five Irregulars who have written to him, inviting them to Hollywood at his expense to serve as advisors on the film. When they agree, the studio provides a house for them at 221B Romualdo Drive, complete with a housekeeper named Mrs. Hudson.
To help tout the film, Maureen plans a party for the press. On the afternoon of the party, Maureen, trying to coordinate the preparations at 221B, is besieged by mysterious callers, messages, and telephone calls. Once things are under way, Stephen Worth makes a drunken, belligerent appearance. When he tries to hit one of the Irregulars, his wild swing hits instead one of the guests, Lieutenant Jackson of the police department. Jackson knocks him cold and he and some others carry Worth to a room upstairs to sleep it off. That ends the party. Later on, Maureen goes upstairs and finds a still drunk and abusive Worth standing in the doorway of the room. Moments later she hears a shot, blood blossoms under the hand Worth claps to his heart, and he falls back into the darkened room. When she bends to help him, something strikes the back of her head, rendering her unconscious. One of the Sherlockians carries her downstairs. When she revives and reports what's happened, Lieutenant Jackson goes to investigate.
There's a lot of blood in the room. There are other significant things there, too. There just isn't any corpse. The next day, each of the Irregulars has a peculiar, sometimes frightening adventure. Each adventure has its roots in a Holmes story, and each elicits information about another Irregular which he'd prefer not be revealed. The police and the Sherlockians thus have their hands full trying to unravel codes and ciphers, interpret the meaning of the adventures, and discover the whereabouts of Worth's body and the means by which it was removed from the house. There's a cover blurb from the New York Times Book Review on the paperback edition I have which reads, “Delightful...offers a surprise on nearly every page.”
This brings me to the only complaint I have about the book—the edition. Mine was published by Carroll & Graf. I'm not sure about the number of pages containing surprises, but this particular book must have been proofread by someone whose idea of intellectual activity is dwarf-tossing. Even by C&G standards, which generally seem to be abysmal in the typographical error department, this one qualifies for the Guinness Book of World Records. By all means read the book. Just avoid the Carroll & Graf edition if you have options.
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Barry Ergang © 2003, 2007