Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Rocket to the Morgue

Rocket to the Morgue by Anthony Boucher
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it was amazing

Anthony Boucher's Rocket to the Morgue is an ingenious mystery and also a particular delight to anyone interested in the "pulp" era of science fiction.

The novel opens in prewar Los Angeles with Lieutenant Terrance Marshall, amiable family man and homicide detective,feeding the baby and answering his wife's question of "Anything interesting happen today?" Nothing interesting, of course--just a ho-hum corpse dead of low-caliber lead poisoning in a flophouse...only the murderer has not bothered to take the $300 of 1941 cash from the room, while the dead man's jacket holds an oddly distinctive rosary and the telephone number to a "[v]eddy veddy swank" apartment hotel. While Marshall's mystery-minded friend, Sister Ursula, looks into the singular religious artifact, the Lieutenant's investigation of the apartment hotel leads by complete happenstance to the plump, pretentious Hilary Foulkes, heir to his very famous father's literary estate, and a man thoroughly disliked by several science fiction writers. Now, Foulkes just happens to have had a couple of odd close calls recently--a falling brick, then a box of poisoned chocolates--and during Marshall's interview there arrives a package that ticks loudly, so...

Well, as one can see, pleasant tangles and red herrings abound. There are professional jealousies and monopolistic squeezings, a glamorous Mrs. Foulkes with little love lost, a brother-in-law who is next in line as literary executor of the lucrative "Dr. Derringer" series, a deferential cousin/typist, and a classic locked room mystery. For amusement we have sentences of the droll "She crossed her legs (she knew they were good) and leaned forward (she knew they were good too)" variety, a promotion-seeking flatfoot from Pasadena, installments of an exquisitely awful space opera being hacked out at a penny a word, and the wry wit and wisdom of the Manana Literary Society.

Boucher's depiction of this real-life group of California fantasy and science fiction writers, with its scarcely disguised members such as Robert A. Heinlein and others, is a particular joy. Each of these fellers, of course, has a perfectly acceptable reason for not necessarily relishing the continued corporeal existence of the vain and penny-pinching Hilary Foulkes, but it is the combination of pontificating about the history, future, and meaning of speculative fiction, plus numerous in-jokes, that make them doubly worthwhile. Austin Carter, for example, the Heinlein character, is suave and talkative and completely unflappable; when he says to Lieutenant Marshall something that it seems only the attempted murderer could have known, he then shrugs to the sputtering man, "'I believe I am supposed at this point to light a cigaret nonchalantly? Very well, I hereby do so.' The flame of the match was steady in his hand." This is hard not to adore.

Even if one were not already familiar with the lovable cranks of the quirky real-world Manana Literary Society--and I confess to knowing exceedingly little about anyone except Heinlein--all of these factors add up to a very enjoyable five-star mystery from the pulp era of science fiction. In addition to the occasional wisecracks and the literary history and the in-jokes, there really is a mystery here, and its unexpected solving is definitely worth the wait.
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August 10, 2014 – Shelved
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