Rocket to the Morgue

Written by Anthony Boucher

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Rocket to the Morgue
Penzler Publishers
RRP: £18.99
Released: July 8 2019

Anthony Boucher’s real name was not ‘Anthony Boucher’, but when ‘Rocket to the Morgue’ first appeared in 1942 he used yet another pseudonym, ‘H H Holmes’. That’s partly because this book is a sequel to 1940’s ‘Nine Times Nine’ - in which he had introduced a new series detective and first used this pen-name. However, this is also a roman à clef, in which many real people appear under alternate names, the Droste effect is not inappropriate. More simply, Boucher, who was coming up to thirty, was writing about the small community of science fiction and fantasy authors who lived in Los Angeles who were his friends and colleagues. Most are easily identifiable under their nom-de-plumes.

Detective Terry Marshall of the LAPD, is trying to identify who killed a man living on skid row. His only clue is an unusual rosary, and Marshall’s mentor, a nun named Sister Ursula who makes suggestions that lead Marshall to Hilary Foulkes, child of a great but late author. Today’s children of best-selling authors become best-selling authors in their own right, but Hilary Foulkes’ main purpose in life seems to be making a misery of everyone else’s by his miserly defence of the estate, demanding enormous reprint fees, denying sequel-writing, and even delaying Braille editions. Foulkes, confusing the reason for Marshall’s visit, begins to talk of the attempts that have been made on his own life, and it is those attempts that lead Marshall to begin to investigate the aspiring authors, each of whom has a different but related reason to hate Foulkes.

Foulkes talks of a previous attempt involving poisoned chocolates (the literary reference is probably Boucher’s intention), but after Marshall’s arrival the murder attempts (or murder) are in a locked and observed room. That is, apart from the eponymous rocket death – which is out in the open, in fact at a garden party during which all the suspects are present. It provides a horrible contrast (Boucher has quoted from the dreadful space opera Joe Henderson has been writing, but nothing has prepared us for the death by rocket). We have been presented with the reality of a scientific death against the naive imagination of science fiction. The USA at this stage (Halloween week 1941) was not at war, though it is discussed: soon this death by technology would be reality.


Rocket to the Morgue is not the best of Boucher’s seven novels. It was his last, and his career thereafter was as an editor and reviewer - The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary 1942-1947 [Ramble House]. This tome seems to be out of print, but is excellent and insightful reading, and it may be that he recognised his own literary limitations. The story swaps between characters too frequently, and the revelation of the locked-room murder is underwhelming. In fact, readers and critics have more frequently read the book in an attempt to understand what the literary milieu was like at the end of the ‘thirties for a small and unappreciated group of writers whose time was yet to come.

There is more to the book than that: the rocket scientist, ‘Hugo Chantrelle’, was based on a real person, Jack Parsons, a scientific genius who was also a black magician and follower of Alistair Crowley, who later died in an unexplained explosion. Much later still, Ray Bradbury – who was on the edges of the writers’ group – set his neo-noir Death is a Lonely Business (1985) in the same milieu, but presenting its spirit as much darker.

Then there is the social history of Los Angeles buried in the story. This is LA so there must be cars, but many of these respectable couples are so cash-strapped that they have to use public transport, and at this time in LA there were two such modes: Matt and Concha Duncan travel to the Marshall’s home by ‘streetcar’ (tram), while Sister Ursula’s convent is on (not really) a ‘bus line’. ‘Not really’ because there is a mile-and-a-half walk between bus stop and building. The difference between travel by streetcar or by bus must have been significant at one time, perhaps Americans will still understand this, but its significance is or has been lost on British readers. Marshall himself has an official car for police business. And Los Angeles is clearly divided by race: the convent makes its swimming pool available to Mexican school children but they come only “weekly in school buses from the north end of town”. That, though, seems to be an authorial observation, Marshall never meets any Latinos or Hispanics, and never goes to the north end. He goes east to Pasadena, whence problems with his authority or lack of it begin to hold up the investigation, as Sergeant Kello of the local police manages to delay everything by his stupidity.

Given that Los Angeles was the city of ‘noir’ it is strange to read an account of it that is not ‘noir’ but is, instead, close to a classic English detective story. Locked room puzzle, social history, and literary atmosphere: any of them could be your reason for reading Rocket to the Morgue.

Introduction by F Paul Wilson

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