Sister Ursula
(creator: Anthony Boucher writing as H H Holmes)

Anthony Boucher
Sister Ursula is a member of the Order of Martha of Bethany. Her "dark blue gown hid the lines of her body, and the pale blue headress made her face simply a pink blob gleaming above the starched white neckpiece. The skin looked smooth - but there was no way of fixing her age. Only one thing about her was definite and personal - her blue eyes, kind and wise and understanding".

The Order (invented by the author) does "a little of everything", including hospital work, teaching, and, when necessary, housework. "We take the usual triple vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience; but we aren't subject to canon law. You see, we've never asked approbation from the Holy See. Mother La Roche (the founder) wished this community to be a lay one, with only private vows. In the strictest technical sense, I suppose we're not nuns at all .... It does give us a freer hand in our work." And every year, they have a one day gap before they take their vows for another year. "For twenty-four hours we are theoretically free from all vows. Of course, no one ever does anything about it, but it's nice to think that you could if you wanted to." All very convenient for a detective nun.

Sister Ursula is "a lively, sensible and wise woman" who has her feet planted firmly on the ground. On one occasion, when a confused young woman thinks she wants to join to join her Order, she reassures her family, "I have finally talked that silly child out of becoming a nun". She goes on to explain, "It was a struggle. The poor girl is so young. At that age it's so easy to let your personal discontent masquerade as God's will".

As a nun, she is, of course, not allowed out on her own. As another character points out, "You always thought of Sister Ursula in the singular but she existed, so to speak, in the plural. You never saw her alone; there was inevitably Sister Felicitas, who did nothing, who said nothing, but whose presence presumably satisfied some regulation of the order." And she was also deaf and slept most of the time, so was fortunately not much of a restraining influence on Ursula.

Ursula (whose father had been a police captain) can fairly claim to know something about police methods. She explains, "I was planning to be a policewoman myself when my health broke down and I was forced to change my plans". So it is not a complete surprise when she says, "I am going to find the murderer .... You see, I am not inexperienced in detection. The Mother Superior was quite astonished when I proved what had been happening to the sacramental wine. And then there was that little business of vandalism when someone slashed the missal which Sister Perpetua was illuminating. In fact, Sister Immaculata always calls me - Oh, dear me! .... I think that everyone has a particular deadly Sin. Mine is Pride." She's an interesting character. It seems a pity we do not see even more of her in the stories.

The two Sister Ursula novels were originally published under the pen-name of H.H. Holmes (which had also been the alias of an infamous real-life criminal) by an author who usually called himself Anthony Boucher (to rhyme with croucher). His real name was William Anthony Parker White (1911-1968). He adopted the pseudonym when he realised that there were already 75 other authors called William White. He held a BA from the University of Southern Cailifornia, followed by an MA at Berkeley. He was an author who became an influential critic of detection and science fiction stories. He edited detective and science fiction magazines, compiled anthologies and also wrote radio plays and was an accomplished translator from German, Spanish and other languages.

He was a very committed Roman Catholic, and served as a lay reader. He was married with two sons. He died of lung cancer, aged 56, after a very full and busy life. He had many interests including football, basketball, gourmet cooking, wine, and theology, and has fairly been described as a workaholic. There still is a major annual American convention of mystery fans, authors, publishers, book dealers, book stores and publishing agents, called The Bouchercon which offers awards called Anthonys, both named after him.

Incidentally, there are numerous references to clews in his books. According to my dictionary this is an archaic version of clues!

Nine Times Nine (1940)
Nine Times Nine is a "locked room" mystery in which Police Lieutenant Terence Marshall, would-be writer Matt Duncan, and Sister Ursula try to identify the killer of cult-opponent Wolfe Harrigan. Suspects include mystic cult-leader Ahasver and the murderous Swami Mahopadhyaya Virasenanda. There's even a mysterious butler, but it would be "too damned corny" to suspect him. It is Sister Ursula who comes up with helpful suggestions, eventually solving the mystery, although, unfortunately, she herself seldom appears.

Ahasver teaches "that the only true Gospel is the Gospel of Joseph of Arimathea, which Ahasver claims to have found in Tibet and himself translated from the ancient manuscripts. That Christ, Joseph of Arimathea, and Ahasver were all members of the asetic Jewish order known as the Essenes. And that Ahasver's immortality - for he does lay literal claim to being the Wandering Jew - was imposed on him by Christ, not as a punishment, but so that he could carry the spark of truth on through all the ages when the false Christianity of Paul and Luke would be in the ascendant."

But then, at one of his crowded meetings, the yellow-robed Ahasver pronounces the curse of nine times nine to destroy Wolfe Harrigan, who just grins in response. But soon afterwards he is shot dead. It happens in a locked room in which a yellow-robed figure had just been seen. But then the figure had vanished.

When pressed, Ahasver is happy to admit that he was the murderer - but, as at the same time he had been conducting a meeting elsewhere, he offered to produce "one hundred and eight sworn statements" to provide the perfect alibi. "Are you trying to suggest," Lieutenant Marshall asked him, "that you were in both places at once?"
"I am not suggesting, officer; I am stating the truth ... In myself I am but a poor Jew lost in the maze of immortality, and I cannot release my astral body at will unless strength be given me from otherwhere. Through the Nine Times Nine, this strength was given me, and I fulfilled my mission".

Lieutenant Marshall can't see this case going to court. Then Ahasver's "astral body" appears again, and Sister Ursula says she can see how it is done. "I am beginning to see a way out," she explains. "No, please don't ask me to explain now, but I think tomorrow, on the ground, I can show you how the man in the yellow robe left the room".
"And who the man is?" asked Marshall. "After all, that helps too.
"I have known that for too long. Unless," she added as an afterthought, "Ahasver's hair should prove as false as his beard." And she was the only one who knew what she was talking about.

When Bunyan, the butler, next opens the door to them, Marshall comments, "In any standard whodunnit, Bunyan would have been rubbed out by now. The Man Who Knew Too Much." In fact, it is only he who knows the true identity of Ahasver.

Meanwhile Police Lieutenant Marshall is busy reading a mystery novel by John Dickson Carr in which his character Dr Gideon Fell explains all the possible solutions to locked room mysteries."Apparently this damned locked-room business is old stuff to mystery novelists, even though it's new in my police experience. ... I never thought I'd see the day when I tried to solve a case with a mystery novel; but damn it all, this is a mystery-novel case."

The story, although gently paced at times, is told with humour and invention, there is amusing dialogue, and the cult background certainly holds the interest.

Rocket to the Morgue (1942)
Rocket to the Morgue
is another locked room mystery, but goes on to describe various attempts (including by "a car, a brick, poisoned chocolates and a bomb") to kill Hilary Foulkes, the money-grabbing heir of the famous novelist, the late Faulkner Foulkes. The suspects include members of the Mañana Literary society, a group of Science Fiction authors who meet to discuss the work they may do tomorrow and other matters.

Hot on the trail is Lieutenant Terence Marshall, put on the right track by the shrewd Sister Ursula, accompanied, as always, by the usually sleeping Sister Felicitas. Lieutenant Marshall had been so impressed by Sister Ursula that he had named his baby daughter after her. She admits to him, "It's your business to solve crimes, and it's not mine. I want to be good. But I've be been good so long that I - I've begun to itch."
"Madam," he tells her. "after the job you did a year ago, you're more than welcome to solve my cases any time you want to. If you itch so, why shouldn't you scratch it?"

It's a lively if unlikely tale, with a rather incoherent plot that is not meant to be taken too seriously, but is particularly interesting for its science fiction background which Boucher knew so well. Indeed he even appears in the story itself as one of the members of the club. There was a real-life Mañana Literary Society (to which he dedicated the book) that used to meet in the home of the writer Robert Henlein. Boucher seems to have used his friends there as the models for some of his characters, so Robert Henlein is said to appear as Austin Carter, L Ron Hubbard as D Vance Wimpole, and John Campbell as Don Stuart (that was the pen name that Campbell often used), although Boucher himself later claimed that "No character in this novel is based specifically on any actual writer - nor is any character quite devoid of factual basis". (To read more about supposed identifications, try looking up "Fowler Foulkes" on Google.)

Fowler Foulkes seems a combination of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs. His detective Dr Derringer, who plays quite a part in this book, derives from Conan Doyle's Prof Challenger. His son Hilary Foulkes may have been suggested by Burroughs' son who kept a similar close control on his father's works.

This was at a time when science fiction was as Carter put it, "essentially a magazine field. Outside of Fowler Faulkes and H.G.Wells, practically no contemporary imaginative writer has been commercially successful in book form." He argues that the time has come to put less emphasis on science and on gadgetry and more on how such advances would "affect the lives of ordinary people like you or me". In later years, Boucher expained, '"This is the way it was in Southern California just before the war, when science fiction was being given its present form". It is Carter who also offers possible science fiction answers to solving locked room mysteries, including allowing the criminal to enter and leave the room "through the fourth dimension."

There are nice turns of phrase, as when Veronica Foulkes, Hilary's wife, "left alone, bit her lips, stamped her foot, and squeezed from her eyes the start of a spate of tears. Then abruptly she reconsidered, wiped her eyes, and examined her face in a compact mirror. It was possible that reporters might call".

Sister Ursula has no problem finding her way onto murder scenes. Marshall "kept marvelling at the adroitly apposite quality of the nun's questions and the deft speed with which she took in all facts". But even he was talen aback when he asked her, "Who killed Hilary?" and she "clasped tightly the crucifix of her rosary. For a moment her lips barely moved in silent prayer. 'I'm afraid,' she said at last, 'that I did.' " Not that she had, of course.

Right at the end, Lieutenant Marshall puts in his own plug for science fiction: "At it's best. it's fresh, vigorous, creative imagination, and the perfect escape literature. I never could find such escape myself in a mystery novel. Too close to home or too exasperatingly far from it." Even so, it is a pity that Boucher never wrote another Sister Ursula novel - however far from the truth it might have been!


Boucher also wrote two short stories featuring Sister Ursula. These (Coffin Corner and The Stripper) are included in Exeunt Murderers (1983), a collection of his "best mystery stories". But they are not particularly interesting. He also wrote a novella Vacancy with Corpse (1946) featuring her, but this has never been reprinted.


There are numerous web references to Boucher. I would recommend an interesting article about him, written by one of his friends, on the Mystery Net site, and another infomative piece on the David Langford site.





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Nine Times Nine cover
When Nine Times Nine first appeared, it was credited to H H Holmes, but later reprints (see below) used the name Anthony Boucher.
Nine Times Nine cover
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