“Who was Anthony Boucher?” by William F. Nolan
Anthony Boucher would be flattered and happily shocked to know that the Bouchercon, the world’s premier annual mystery convention was named after him. A singular honor. Yet he deserved it. He earned it.
Yes, I knew him personally; I was proud to call him my friend. And I can tell you a lot about him. For starters, Boucher (rhymes with “voucher”) was not his birth name; he was born on August 21, 1911, as William Anthony Parker White, and he used this legal name all his life, along with the pseudonym that most readers, editors and friends knew him by. (He even had a joint bank account with himself under both names.)
He was born in Oakland, California, into a family based in medicine. His parents were both physicians, but Tony had no desire to emulate them. In high school he wanted to be a physicist. However, by junior college, Tony had a new goal: He would become a language teacher. After earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1932 from the University of Southern California, he earned his M.A. (with honors in German and Spanish) at U.C. Berkeley in 1934. Indeed, he was a natural linguist and later translated works into English from French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. (He was also proficient in Sanskrit!)
During his college years, Tony was active in Little Theater as actor, director and playwright. Opera was also an early passion.
In 1935, he became a theater and music critic for United Progressive News in Los Angeles, and write his first mystery novel, The Case of the Seven of Calvary, a year later. (Simon & Schuster published it as “by Anthony Boucher” in 1937.)
I once asked him about the origin of his second name. “I invented it for mysteries,” he said. “Boucher was my grandmother’s maiden name. She was French-Irish. The ‘Anthony’ came from a favorite saint of mine. Plus, it’s part of my legal first name.”
Tony married Phyllis Price in the spring of 1938 (they subsequently had two sons), and his second mystery novel, The Case of the Crumpled Knave, was published in 1939. Boucher’s detective, Fergus O’Breen, was conceived as a kind of West Coast Ellery Queen with an Irish brogue, and Tony wrote three more O’Breen novels into 1942.
He was also writing as H.H. Holmes (Nine Times Nine), utilizing his Roman Catholic background in the creation of crime-solving nun Sister Ursula.
Tony told me about this second pen name: “Aware of my ongoing obsession with Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, most of my friends assumed that ‘H.H. Holmes’ was derived from the great Sherlock. Not so. Holmes was an actually alias for one of the outstanding criminals of the century, Herman W. Mudgett. Later, I used Mudgett’s real name for some of my printed verse.”
Boucher had always been deeply involved in the genres of fantasy, mystery and horror (having sold his first story, at age 16, to Weird Tales), but it was not until 1940 that he added science fiction to the list.
“SF was a ‘cult’ genre in those days,” Boucher told me. “The boom in science fiction didn’t take place until after the second World War. I was drawn into it by some of my local writer friends.”
Tony became active in a Southern California group known as the “Manana Literary Society.” Its members included some of the major talents in early science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein, Edmond Hamilton, C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner and Cleve Cartmill. Tony’s second H.H. Holmes mystery novel, Rocket to the Morgue (1942) was based directly on the group–and was dedicated to them.
This proved to be Tony’s last novel, although he continued, throughout his career to write short fiction for both the mystery and SF/fantasy markets.
By 1942, he was into what most of his admirers claim was his “true vocation”–that of reviewer and critic. He began reviewing in the San Francisco Chronicle, expanding to the Chicago Sun Times, and the New York Herald Tribune, but his major critical contribution appeared in the New York Times Book Review beginning in 1951. In all (to the year of his death), Tony wrote more than 850 weekly review columns under the heading “Criminals at Large.” He won three Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America for this outstanding body of criticism and was recognized as the nation’s foremost authority on crime fiction, without question the most influential, as well as the most popular, mystery critic of his period.
He was no less an expert on true crime, editing The Pocket Book of True Crime Stories in 1943, and later helming the highly-regarded True Crime Detective.
The 1940s proved to be a very busy and productive decade for Boucher. In 1945 he launched into a spectacular three-year radio career, plotting more than 100 episodes for “The Adventures of Ellery Queen,” while also providing plots for the bulk of the Sherlock Holmes radio dramas. By the summer of ’46 he had created his own mystery series for the airwaves, “The Casebook of Gregory Hood.” (“I was turning out three scripts each week for as many shows,” he stated. “It was a mix of hard work and great fun.”)
Tony left dramatic radio in 1948, “mainly because I was putting in a lot of hours working with J. Francis McComas in creating what soon became The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. We got it off the ground in ’49 and saw it take hold solidly by 1950. This was a major creative challenge and although I was involved in a lot of other projects, I stayed with F&SF into 1958.”
Indeed, throughout his years with the magazine, Boucher was certainly involved in “a lot of other projects.” Among them:
- Supplying the SF and crime markets with new fiction.
- Teaching an informal writing class from his home in Berkeley.
- Continuing his Sunday mystery columns for the New York Times Book Review.
- Functioning as chief critic for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
- Reviewing SF and fantasy (as H.H. Holmes) for the New York Herald Tribune.
- Editing True Crime Detective.
- Supervising the Mercury Mystery Line and (later) the Dell Great Mystery Library.
- Hosting “Great Voices,” his series of historical opera recordings for Pacifica Radio.
- Serving (in 1951) as president of Mystery Writers of America.
In addition to all of this, Tony was a devoted poker player, a political activist, a rabid sport fan (football, basketball, track, gymnastics and rugby), an active “Sherlockian” in the Baker Street Irregulars, and a spirited chef.
We met in 1952 when I asked him to write a short piece on Bradbury’s early career for my one-shot Ray Bradbury Review. Despite his incredible workload, Tony graciously responded with a fine essay and we became instant friends. In 1956 he printed one of my stories in F&SF. I recall my delight. Tony was a “tough sell” due to the strict, exacting standards of quality he imposed; for me, getting a story into F&SF was akin to cracking The New Yorker.
As an editor, Boucher was strong-willed but gentle. He hated form letters and always personalized his rejections. He possessed enormous tact and patience and took real pride in discovering new writers, offering them his unique brand of warm helpful encouragement. And he had a truly phenomenal memory.
I recall an evening in San Francisco during the course of which he gleefully reeled off dozens of bawdy limericks. He was equally adept at quoting Shakespeare, and his in-depth knowledge of the mystery genre, past and present, was mind-boggling. He was a one-man encyclopedia when it came to opera or sports. Also, he was able to recall, in detail, the plot of every story and novel he’d read from boyhood on, and we’re talking thousands of plots here!
Tony’s physical health was never comparable to his mental health and by the spring of 1958, illness forced him to step away from his editorial duties at F&SF, leaving the magazine to others. Nevertheless, the final decade of his life was crowded with Boucherian activity.
In 1961 he became a regular reviewer for Opera News. In 1962 he supervised the line of Collier mystery classics, and in 1963 became editor of Best Detective Stories of the Year, while continuing to conduct his “Great Voices” radio show and provide reviews for the Times and Ellery Queen. Other passions included SF conventions (where he functioned as a witty and erudite speaker and panelist), Elizabethan drama, mathematics, religion and pre-history.
One of his most endearing qualities was the profound joy he took in the talents of others, no matter what these talents might embrace.
I recall his amused delight in my rather strange ability to walk backward down steep hills. Whenever we were together on a steep hill in San Francisco, he would insist that I perform for him. I was always happy to oblige; hearing Tony’s deep chuckle of pleasure was ample reward.
Tony Boucher took pleasure in so much, and brought pleasure in turn to so many. He was truly sui generis. I have never known anyone like him.
In 1968 I dedicated my book, 3 to the Highest Power:
For Anthony Boucher, who…in eighty-seven splendidly edited issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction, perfected the Grand Art of the Preface.
This is reference to all the wonderful short prefaces he contributed to each story in F&SF.
The last word Tony wrote to me was “amen”–shakily scrawled at the bottom of a letter from Phyllis telling me how much the dedication meant to him. He was dying of lung cancer and a few weeks later he was gone.
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William F. Nolan’s latest book from St. Martin’s Press is Shark’s Never Sleep, the third in his “Black Mask Mystery” series featuring Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner operating as amateur detectives in 1930s Hollywood. In Sharks, narrated by Gardner, he’s arrested for murder and has to defend himself in court, a la Perry Mason. Nolan has 65 books to his credit with several more due in 1999. He lives in Southern California with a wife, seven cats, a parakeet and 15,000 books.