The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet

May 2, 2011

I don’t know why, but I went into Burton Egbert Stevenson’s The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet thinking it was going to be a locked room mystery, or something like it. What I got instead was, somewhat disappointingly, a lot more like Fantômas. Which is not to say it wasn’t good — just that it wasn’t all that I’d hoped.

It begins, as so many mystery novels do, with a lawyer narrator being called in to a client’s house, only in this one the client isn’t dead…yet. Philip Vantine is one of those ever-popular-with-novelists last-of-a-wealthy-and-important-New-York-family types, and he’s all about collecting antiques, so it’s not a dead body that our Mr. Lester is called in to see, but a piece of 17th century French furniture, inlaid and encrusted to within an inch of its life. The cabinet has apparently been sent to Vantine by mistake — he did buy one, but not this one — only now that he’s seen it, Vantine can’t live without it. He asks Lester to get in touch with the firm that sent it and see if the real owner is willing to part with it.

Less than 24 hours later, Vantine and a total stranger are dead, both having been discovered lying on the floor in the parlor with two tiny wounds somewhere in the neighborhood of their knuckles. Lester and his friend Godfrey, a reporter, set to work on the mystery, and the plot soon devolves into a succession of veiled ladies, unlikely coincidences, glowing eyes, disguises, and master criminals. But mostly in a good way. There were parts that seemed unnecessary, but everything fit together pretty well in the end. Lester was a pretty good Watson to Godfrey’s Holmes, although the bits where he seemed more than averagely intelligent made the bits where he acted like a complete moron kind of hard to take.

Inconsistency was a bit of a theme, actually — have the time I was applauding Stevenson’s restraint, and the other half a was wincing at the ridiculousness. But hey, it balances out.  And, to be honest, I couldn’t put it down.

Contemporary reviewers were, as ever, eager to give away the ending and…well, I wish they wouldn’t, but William Morton Payne might be my new hero. Highlight the following line to read the best spoiler ever: “That villainous piece of furniture is guilty of several baffling murders, for it has two secret drawers, and one of them is protected by a spring which injects hydrocyanic acid into the knuckles of those who fool with it, whereupon they keel over and die.”[source]



  1. No one knows why, but my grandmother hated this book. My grampa, Al Boller, had a copy of it, and for no knownj reason anyone can explain, Gramma repeatedly took his copy of the Boule Cabinet and emphatically threw it in the trash. Grampa would retrieve it. They would argue. It was actually one of the only things they ever argued about! In 1990, when he passed away, I learned this ‘mystery’ when my mom was astonished to find the stained, damaged, soiled but ultimately surviving novel on grampa’s bookshelf. Somehow it had outlived both of them, and every attempt to send it to the Birmingham, AL landfill. My mom couldn’t beleive it had, since over 40 years earlier she remembered vigorous efforts to remove the book from their lives! Naturally, I snapped it up and read it, hoping for some insight as to what my very-liberal and reasonable-minded grandmother would have despised about this one particular book. I have no idea! I can’t find anything objectionable in it, about it. It’s a second layer of mystery. If anyone can offer the slightest insight as to why the book might have been controversial or annoying to an otherwise sweet and loving 40’s wife and mother, or why a steelworker wouled have doggedly saved it from the dump, I would love to hear your thoughts! Many, many thanks for reviewing this fun novel.

    • That’s a really interesting story — thanks for sharing it. I have no idea why your grandmother would have objected — except maybe on literary grounds?

    • Hmm, that is a mystery. Maybe your grandmother’s secret dream was to be a private detective, but she gave all that up when she got married and your grandfather kept the book around to remind her to never give up? Or maybe he got it as a gift from an old girlfriend, heh.

  2. I can’t believe I read the spoiler. :p

    • It’s such a delightful spoiler though. And also not hard to guess, in broad outline at least.

      • It is. Also, I think that’s solution to The Circular Study mystery (?). Sounds awfully familiar, anyway.

        • Wait, there might be more than one book where the solution is murderous furniture?

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