Boucher was a linguist and, later, a celebrated critic of crime fiction, and he manages to balance the academic setting of UC-Berkeley and a pontificating professor as detective (and expert in Sanskrit!) with an accessible murder mystery that, once the red herrings have been swept away, is not cluttered with clues involving specialized knowledge. I am not a fan of the mystery sub-genre where esoteric facts provide the critical link: “In classical Greek, the word for ‘radish’ is the same as your surname, ‘Rodotheos’, and by clutching the relish tray the victim was naming his murderer!” Boucher does not attempt such a stunt here, thankfully.
The Seven of Calvary moves swiftly and presents its clues and plot twists in scrupulously fair-play style. The visiting Swiss scholar Dr. Schaedel is fatally attacked immediately after asking one of the college students, the attractive Cynthia Wood, for directions at her off-campus apartment. The killer stabs the luckless man in the back with an ice pick, and a piece of paper is discovered near the body; on it is drawn a number 7 atop a series of steps, which could also be interpreted as a cross on the hill of Calvary.
The murder is baffling, both because of the clue and due to the fact that the victim had no enemies or controversies to his name. But could the symbol on the paper be a sign of international intrigue? History professor Paul Lennox recounts the strange history of the Vignards, a shadowy (and largely undocumented) syndicate with roots in Switzerland whose calling card is the Seven of Calvary. Martin Lamb discusses this development with his Holmes, the sedentary but intellectually nimble Professor Ashwin, and soon the symbol makes another appearance. This time it is Paul Lennox who, in the title role of Martin’s translation of Don Juan Returns, downs a strychnine-laced glass of stage wine and promptly dies; another paper is found near the props table. As Professor Ashwin sees the light, one more shadowy murder attempt takes place, this time with a gun and an intended target.
This was my first book by this author – I have since discovered mixed reviews of his Fergus O’Breen stories and later works – and this one is a success on nearly every level. (There remain several troubling misogynist details in Calvary, difficult to dismiss even as a product of its time. Every woman character seems to have pert, noteworthy breasts and a siren-like influence on the male faculty and students. The decision to comment on feminine curves may have been a marketing choice for Boucher, an American author who was competing with the burgeoning femmes fatales of the pulps. Still, the attitude adds an uneasy element, at its worst when our Watson lightly suggests that rape would make a good detail for a detective story.)
But the strengths far outweigh the tonal missteps. Boucher provides a great Queen-like Challenge to the Reader, and guides them prior to the conclusion with a list of eight points (The Point of the Father’s Religion; The Point of the Superfluous Alibi; etc.) that, properly decoded, can untangle the chain of events and define motives and methods. Above all, it’s a puzzle that has been devised especially with mystery fans in mind, and in that respect Boucher arranges his enigmatic pieces of paper very cleverly.
John at Pretty Sinister Books also provided a positive review when he traversed Calvary five years ago; follow the link above to view it. This is the first review I’m submitting to Past Offences for the year 1937, which is in the Crimes of the Century spotlight for the month of March.