All Our Yesterdays 30
by Harry Warner Jr.

Rocket To The Morgue

Fandom is never easy to understand. But it presents particular comprehension problems of unusual difficulty every so often. One of these times of bafflement has existed for more than a year. Anthony Boucher has been dead since April 1968. Obituary notices and expressions of regret appeared in many fanzines. But to my knowledge science fiction has not yet done the proper things, and this puzzles me. Here was a pro who behaved like a fan part of the time, he delighted every fan who met him and starred at many worldcons, he wrote fine science fiction and edited one of the best prozines, and he was the first to write a piece of faan fiction and sell it as a successful mystery novel. And only those hasty brief notes about how much he’ll be missed have appeared in fanzines. We haven’t had a thorough discussion of his fantasy and Science Fiction in the other prozines, and I’ve seen no extended accounts of what Tony was like and the good things he did. Instead we have had endless rehashes of Heinlein’s philosophy, the meaning of 2001, and eighty-seven denunciations of Star Trekkers.

This column normally treats of fannish productions. But I want to do what I can to remedy this neglect. I didn’t know Boucher, I lack the time to do for his prozine what Alva Rogers did for Astounding, but I can say some things about that faan mystery novel Rocket To The Morgue. It isn’t to bad a subject for this column, because it couldn’t have existed without fandom of a past day. (In parentheses, I can also point sadly to the way mystery fandom has done much more than our fandom for Boucher’s memory. The Armchair Detective, edited by Allen J. Hubin, ran a “Boucher Portrait”, a compilation by Lenore Glen Offord. It contains many reminiscences by bit and little people of this “modern version of the Renaissance Man”, followed up by a bibliography.)

Fiction about fans has appeared in fanzines before Rocket To The Morgue saw print, and one or two prozine stories had used fans as characters in science fiction adventures. But Rocket To The Morgue was a stunner when Duell, Sloan and Pearce published it in 1942. Here was a story in which you could read about science fiction fans, filthy pros, costume balls at conventions, fanzines, and many other trappings of fandom and prodom. One of the murders was committed with the help of a rocket. There were in-group references of the kind fans love so well: the book was published under the by-line of H. H. Holmes, but it contained references to Anthony Boucher. During your first reading, there was the added delight of uncertainty over the locked room puzzle: was there a mundane explanation or was a science fictional element responsible.

By page 27, the mundane reader was learning about us. In the middle of a brief history of fantasy fiction, Boucher wrote:

“It has its aficionados, as intense and devoted as the audience for mysteries or westerns or hammock-romances. And the most loyal, most fanatical of these followers of fantasy are the devotees of the fiction of science — scienti-fiction to its fans, or more simply stf.”

A few pages later, more respectable segments of the literary world discovered that the filthy pro who got more than a penny per word for his science fiction stories was doing quite well. In unmistakable words, it became obvious that agents for science fiction are not always the world’s finest people. Then, about one-fourth of the way through the book, the reader was plunged into an extended description of a get-together of a bunch of pros and one fan. “The science fiction fans are highly organised, and they have Annual World conventions,” one of the pros explains. “The last one was in Denver, so the fans, ever incorrigible neologists called it the Denvention. The next one’s here in Los Angeles, and I’m afraid it’s called Pacificon.” ‘Fanzine’ is used in what I suspect was its first appearance in any professional publication outside the prozines.

The entire plot would be impossible without science fiction and its traditions. It’s basically the story of an heir to the literary legacy of a series of scientific detective stories, best thought of as what we might have had if Arthur Conan Doyle had written about Professor Challenger as frequently and as successfully as he did of Sherlock Holmes. This heir seems to have been the only major character outside the police in the novel who had no model in reality. By a weird and curious fate, however, a modern generation of fans might imagine a resemblance to one of the Bob Stewarts of recent fannish fame. I can’t say more without spoiling part of the plot for anyone who hasn’t read the novel. Various people have traced the characters to their prototypes. T. Bruce Yerke, a Los Angeles fan of that era, apparently was the fan named William Runcible in the book. His big moment comes more than half-way through the novel:

“Gribble bent over the rocket. There was a flare of exhaust and a loud explosion. All eyes turned, tennis-wise, to watch the rocket shoot past. But those eyes saw something else. They saw a plump figure topple over the lip of the trench into the immediate path of the Aspera IX. The ears heard a crunch of bone and flesh, and sharp ringing screams...”

It happened right under the eyes of a detective who was afraid there would be a murder. A now-forgotten Californian, Tom Wright was another fan who turned up in the book. As Arthur Waring, he refers to one of the eternal points of debate when he discusses Runcible to a detective: “He kept saying what fans ought to support was pro writing instead of fandom.” He accidentally provides an important clue to the mystery’s solution by giving the detective a sample of his artistic accomplishments.

The Armchair Detective’s survey speculated that Boucher appears under two names in the book. Boucher is used as the name of a subsidiary character, and Matt Duncan may also be Boucher, as a novice prozine writer. L. Ron Hubbard, who had not yet become famous as a dianetics exponent, is credited with being the prototype of D. Vance Wimpole. Some extracts from stories about Captain Comet, a creation of Joe Henderson, leave no doubt that it is Captain Future and Ed Hamilton under the thinnest of disguises. Don A. Stewart doesn’t appear in the story but is used to refer to things that John W. Campbell is doing off-stage. One puzzle I’ve not seen explained is Ackerman’s identification of the important character Matt Duncan and his wife with Mr. and Mrs. Cleve Cartmill. He mentioned it only a few weeks after the novel was published, he was in the middle of the science fiction people Boucher knew, there must have been grounds for that identification, and yet the Duncans are holdovers from a previous Boucher novel which has nothing to do with science fiction. Austin Carter and his wife are listed by The Armchair Detective as Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, but Ackerman when the book was published and George Locke many years later both considered Heinlein as Carter’s model, possibly because Carter is described as creator of a future history around which his stories are modelled. The Califuturians is a club that is presumably the LASFS, although some reviewers have listed that organisation as prototype for the Manana Literary Society. The book is dedicated to the MLS and to Heinlein and Cartmill in particular, and one of Heinlein’s pennames, Anson MacDonald is mentioned in passing in the story. (The actual MLS came into being after the book was published and was named for the book’s creation.)

I’m on the shakiest ground when I try to assess the book’s value, because mystery fiction is a field in which I’ve read only sporadically and intermittently. Tentatively, I’d say that the strength of Rocket To The Morgue is the superb way in which Boucher brings science fiction people to life and the remarkably accurate, condensed descriptions he inserts about the history and traditions of prodom and fandom. As a novel in its entirety, however, I don’t find it as entertaining as Boucher’s fantasy fiction. A couple of things about the novel seem to me to be flaws. One is the curiously minor attention paid to the first murder; it’s almost ignored during the first two-thirds of the novel in favour of the narrow escapes from death suffered by the literary heir. The other problem is a great deal of plugging for a previous mystery novel featuring some of the same characters, Nine Times Nine. I know that mystery writers like to call attention to their other books in this manner, but I’m afraid it’s overdone in this case.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating book, one that I acquired in both pulp magazine and paperback editions long ago, then just recently in its hardcover format. I read it again not long ago, for the first time in fifteen years, and found myself thoroughly puzzled by the course of events; over that long interval I’d succeeded in forgetting the identity of the guilty person.

To those who actually knew Boucher in person, Rocket To The Morgue should provide reminders of many phases of the man. His enthusiasm for Sherlockian lore obviously helped to create the fictional Dr. Derringer cult. His gourmet qualities show up in various places through the novel. He was a devout Catholic and the most important continuing character in the series which includes Rocket To The Morgue is Sister Ursula, a Catholic nun.

And if you have a good memory for names, but have never read the book, you may be wondering about a vague familiarity you sense in characters’ names. You may remember them from their appearances in other Boucher stories. Dr. Derringer turns up in ‘The Barrier’, first published in that same year, 1942, in Astounding. Henderson, Carter, and Duncan bob up in ‘Transfer Point’, first published in Galaxy in 1950. Both have been reprinted in anthologies.

It was the first of a lot of professional stories in which fans appeared. Mack Reynolds’ ‘The Case of the Little Green Men’ topped it by having a murder occur in the middle of a worldcon. Robert Bloch’s ‘A Way of Life’ became infinitely more celebrated with a later fandom, one former fan even got a lot of money as a commission for a serious novel about fandom that never did get published, but Rocket To The Morgue was first. There has never been anyone else quite like Tony Boucher, and I doubt that there’ll ever be a piece of faan fiction exactly like Rocket To The Morgue.

Last revised: 1 March, 2006

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