Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Book Review: Rocket to the Morgue by Anthony Boucher, Introduction by F. Paul Wilson

Rocket to the Morgue (Sister Ursula #2) by Anthony Boucher, Introduction by F. Paul Wilson

 Paperback, 264 pages Published July 2019 by American Mystery Classics (first published 1942)

 I took an interesting route to this book. Anthony Boucher whose real name was William Anthony Parker White wrote books and edited magazines in more than one genre. It is one thing to have had such an impact in one genre that awards and conventions are named after you, but amazing to have impacted two genres. Boucher is known for being a godfather of American mystery novels but it was his impact on Science Fiction that got my attention. I will admit a few years ago Boucher was not a name I knew. Then when my friends and I started the Dickheads Philip K Dick podcast a running joke grew over the episodes. Shout out to Tony, because his influence on the life of Philip K Dick was profound. 

We constantly saw evidence of influence. Two editors had the biggest impact on PKD. Don Wollheim published most of Phil's novels and when talking about his career and the genre Phil always gave Don the credit for being not just one of but the MOST important person in Science fiction. Boucher, on the other hand, was more important to Phil on a personal as well as professional level. It is not just that he bought Phil's first short story Roog, but Tony inspired Phil to write Science Fiction in the first place. The two met and became friends in Berkley when this novel was already a re-printed classic. Philip Dick was working in a record store and Boucher was a regular, picking up vinal to play on his local opera radio show. Phil had dismissed the idea of writing sci-fi as kid stuff and it was Boucher that showed him that you could be a smart reader/ writer of the genre. It wasn't just pulpy kids stuff like Buck Rodgers. As a long time fan of A.E. Van Vogt Phil knew that but needed Boucher's encouragement to write. Boucher also hosted a bay area writers group that included Dick, Marian Zimmer Bradley, and Ray Nelson among others. 

This group of friends would gather and talk about writing and critique each others work. Boucher of course had experience with a group like this and they were the basis of the novel Rocket To the Morgue. In 1940 Boucher and his wife were living in LA, and Boucher became a member of a writers group called the Minana literary society. This was a real writer's group that at the time was hosted by Robert Heinlein, and included L. Ron Hubbard, Henry Kutter and his wife C.L. Moore to name a few. Boucher used this group and real-life Science fiction figures like Forrest J Ackerman and John W. Campbell as characters in this murder mystery. 

Keep in mind this novel was released under the name HH Holmes (yes the same name as the less famous at the time first American serial killer) Boucher made himself a character in the book as well. The details of the group are thinly veiled indeed Austin Carter is clearly Heinlein, D. Vance Wimpole is Hubbard, Halstad Pyn is likely the future founder of Famous Monsters Fores J Ackerman who in 1940 was an agent. Don Stuart who is mentioned but not in the action is John W. Campbell. 

So you see This book is a work of genius and super important to the history of two genres. It is important because: 

 1. Boucher tells a fascinating locked room mystery with interesting characters. 

 2. Boucher comments on a meta-level about the personalities of important figures in the history of science fiction. It is a chance to get to know these figures. 

 3. Boucher tells a great story and still manages to comment on the Science Fiction genre at a time that it was in infancy. Confined to pulp magazines and tiny convention halls. Science fiction novels didn't get hardcover books so he was also introducing the world to the genre. Just two years before he approached a major mystery magazine to open his own SF magazine that still publishes today 50 plus years after his death.

 4. A mystery novel sure but the most recent edition which features a great addition in the form of an excellent introduction by F.Paul Wilson makes sense to be shelved next to classic non-fiction books on the genre. Why because you'll learn levels of the history reading it.

 So the actual story is a fun one. The heir to the literary estate of a writer who wrote popular supernatural detective novels Hilary Foulkes has several enemies. In 1941 Hollywood wants to make his father's stories into movies, and famous Science Fiction writers want to continue his work, but he has refused their efforts, after several attempts at his life the suspicions are directed at the sci-fi group. The action follows a Detective Terrance Marshall and Sister Mary Ursula, a nun of the Sisters of Martha of Bethany who has always dreamed of being a cop. This is the second Sister Ursula book but I have no idea if I am missing out on background about her. 

 The Mystery at the heart of the novel is fun, but it was not what interested me. The commentary and history of the Sci-fi genre were enough for me to make this a great read. The fun story was just a great bonus. As F.Paul Wilson author of The Keep and the Repairmen Jack Series said in his introduction "It made me want to run up to every science fiction fan I know and shove a copy at them, shouting "you have to read this!" I agree this book is a must-read for scholars of the genre.


Unknown said...

Why under the H H Holmes name? Anyone know why?

David Agranoff said...

HH Homles was the first American serial killer.