Wolfe Harrigan is determined to expose the Children of Light, a religious cult led by the mysterious Ahasver, a demagogue with hundreds of followers, a man always clad in bright yellow robes. Matt Duncan, a writer, has become involved in the Harrigan household working with Wolfe, accompanies Wolfe to one of Ahasver’s meetings, only to be horrified when Ahasver pronounces that he will invoke the power of the “Nine Times Nine” – the nine angels who serve the nine prophets of the religion – to kill Wolfe within the month. Wolfe just finds it amusing.
But the joke is somewhat on him. After playing croquet, Duncan catches sight of a yellow-robed man in Wolfe’s study. When the door is broken down – it was locked from the inside – there is no trace of Ahasver, or anyone else. But Wolfe has been shot from close range…
Does Ahasver have the ability to kill by mental projection? It seems the only way that the killer could have escaped the room… who knows, maybe John Dickson Carr can help.
Nine Times Nine is the first mystery by Anthony Boucher (originally released under the H H Holmes pseudonym) to feature Sister Ursula and is generally considered to be a classic locked room mystery. It features at number nine in the Edward D Hoch list of best locked rooms ever, but as I’ve mentioned before, any list that includes The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Crooked Hinge and The Ten Teacups is a bit wonky in my book. So does Nine Times Nine belong there?
It’s got strengths and weaknesses – the weaknesses first, I think. I got the distinct impression that Boucher couldn’t quite make up his mind what sort of book he was writing, in particular who the main character should be. The first selection focuses entirely on Duncan, but following that, we spend a lot more time with the investigating officer, Wallace, and his wife Leone. And occasionally – very occasionally – we meet Sister Ursula who solves the whole case in the background.
Duncan is fine, but seems to be have wandered out of a noir novel – “Whatever else of her was child, he realised with a shock that body was all woman” – charming. Wallace and Leone are much more interesting – I’d definitely read a series based around them – and, to be honest, I didn’t get much of a grasp on Sister Ursula apart from the obvious – she’s a nun.
Having said that, the changing of focus keeps the story moving on, and plot-wise, it’s rather clever. The idea of the cult links nicely to the bizarreness of the murder and the impossibility seems beautifully impossible. The villain is fairly clued (or clewed – there are lots of “clews” in this book) and while the scheme is ridiculous if you think about it, it still makes sense if you take it all with a pinch of salt. And while you have to ask about the possibility of the victim accurately throwing a dart while having his face blown off (not a spoiler), this is still something rather special, especially when Wallace and his wife try and use that chapter from The Hollow Man to solve the crime.
Nine Times Nine is available as an ebook from Orion’s Murder Room imprint (although they seem to have forgotten to attach an image of the cover) and I can see why it’s on that list. Some very clever ideas and settings and an original take on the locked room problem. Definitely Recommended.