Thursday, May 5, 2016

"What the Baker Street Irregulars Will Make of It Is Uncertain"

Recently we highlighted two of Fletcher Pratt's stories that competently combine detective fiction tropes with science fiction (HERE); but Pratt could also offer intelligent critiques of his chosen field. In this excerpt from one of his Saturday Review columns (1951), he notes how the mystery story in some instances has crossed over into science fiction (or is it the other way round?):
. . . perhaps the most remarkable trend (if it is one) this summer is toward a mariage de convenance between fantasy, scientific or not, and the detective story. John Dickson Carr's "Devil in Velvet" frankly admits the union; after starting as a perfectly classic fantasy with our old friend His Satanic Majesty on stage it turns into a perfectly classic detective story, laid in the days of Charles II of England and accompanied by sword-play and various Carrian complications. For fantasy fans it rates as a good try; what the Baker Street Irregulars will make of it is uncertain.
At exactly the opposite end of the corridor stands A. E. van Vogt's "House That Stood Still," purporting to be science fiction but actually a confused detective story of the type in which the hero gets slugged in every chapter and winds up in the arms of a lulu. The scientific features include a race of immortals, who keep a spaceship underground near the Pacific coast for no discernible reason and who can assume the physical form of anyone else in order to make things more confusing. They are not very convincing.
On the other hand, William F. Temple's science in "Four-Sided Triangle" is extremely convincing, perhaps because he asks you to accept so little of it, perhaps because he has kept it in the background while he deals with the emotional involvements of his characters. The story belongs to the English type of "Why they do it" rather than to the "Whodunit," with the science-fiction element honestly stated at the very beginning.
Jack Williamson's "Dragon Island" must also be included in the list of quasi-detective stories, because its plot turns on intrigue and the solution of a mystery, though the science in it is neither subordinated nor incredible. It is good Williamson, almost as good as his memorable "Darker Than You Think," and one of the first science-fiction stories to combine the idea of a successor race with that of modern genetics in a logically satisfying manner.
. . . IN ERIC FRANK RUSSELL'S "Dreadful Sanctuary" the technical problems of moon-flight have been solved—but the moon-rockets keep blowing up as soon as they are outside the atmosphere. The research into the reason by an inventor who has no intention of seeing his own rocket go "pouf!" makes this one of the better science fiction-cum-detective stories; it also gives the author an opportu-nity for some highly diverting examination of such matters as "How do you know you're sane?" and the scientific effects of revealed religion. The dialogue is a little too peppy, and there is a little too much of it; still, the story is nicely conceived and original. — Fletcher Pratt, "Time, Space & Literature," The Saturday Review, July 28, 1951 (online HERE)
- Nick Fuller and Barry Ergang share reviews of The Devil in Velvet HERE.
- Wikipedia's article on The House That Stood Still is HERE (WARNING: SPOILERS).
- Four-Sided Triangle was made into a movie; see Wikipedia HERE (again, WARNING: SPOILERS) (n.b.: "Differences from the novel").
- In Dragon's Island, was Jack Williamson the first to use the term "genetic engineering"? See the article at Biology in Science Fiction HERE for explication.
- Dreadful Sanctuary has received an entry on Wikipedia HERE (guess what: WARNING: SPOILERS).
- Clearly Fletcher Pratt took an interest in not only detective fiction (often incorporating some of its characteristics into his own SF stories) but also true crime, as these two articles from the '30s show:

  "Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsene Lupin."
   By Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).
   First appearance: The American Mercury, January 1936.
   Online HERE.

. . . and . . .

   "Crime As a Profession."
   By Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).
   First appearance: The American Mercury, February 1937.
   Online HERE.

Categories: Detective fiction and SF criticism

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

An Odd Assortment from '28 (finale)

As we've noted before, the year 1928 saw the publication of some classic mystery books—plus a few that have fallen into (perhaps deserved, perhaps not) obscurity.

~ Rogues Fall Out by Herbert Adams (1874-1958):
   Contemporary reviews:
   The Outlook, October 24, 1928 by Walter R. Brooks (online HERE):
   "For the first chapter we suspected that Herbert Adams was a doting mother, so lovingly did he dwell on the curls, and so carefully did he recount the bright sayings, of the kidnapped Bobbie. But fortunately Bobbie dropped out of the picture after a time and permitted us to be entertained by Jimmie Haswell, the amateur snoop, Snoad the sinister male nurse of old Reuben Maitland, Valerie Cartwright who disguised as a man took Snoad's place after that gentleman was mysteriously bumped off, Plum Duff, the parson who was in love with Valerie and served no fictional purpose otherwise until in Chapter 28 he threatened the villain with a chair, and others too numerous to mention. This tale gets off to a bad start and is rather confused, but there's some excitement at the end. Rated at C plus."
   The Saturday Review, December 8, 1928 (HERE):
   "Once more the exuberant London barrister, young Jimmie Haswell, essays the role of amateur crime investigator, a part in which, compared with the regulars, he seems a mere tyro. Little Bobby Maitland vanishes into the clutches of kidnappers, while his sick, wealthy grandpa is being craftily bled by swindlers. These villians contrive the killing of two men in the bedroom of an inn, for interference with their plans, the misled police affirming the crimes to be a murder and a suicide. But Jimmie thinks otherwise, and makes it his business to discover what hidden relationship the abduction of Bobby has to the dual murders. Jimmie demonstrates the futility of entrusting the responsibilities of Sherlock to a fellow of ordinary mental calibre instead of to an intellectual super-man."

   Resources: Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - The Locked Room Mystery HERE.

~ The Net Around Joan Ingilby by A. Fielding (?-?):
   No contemporary reviews available.

   Resources: GAD Wiki HERE - Mystery*File HERE - The Passing Tramp HERE - ONTOS HERE.

~ Werewolf by Charles Swen (?-?):
   No contemporary reviews available.

~ The Slip Carriage Mystery by Lynn Brock (1877-1943):
   Contemporary review:
   The Outlook, December 5, 1928 by Walter R. Brooks (HERE):
   "Who slew Sir William Ireland with a jack-knife in the first-class compartment of a railway carriage? The first half of the story is taken up by the evidence given by all the witnesses who had even the most remote connection with the case; the second, by the activities of Colonel Gore, in his effort to solve it. That first half is slow reading for any but the most tireless mystery fan, but the second is exciting, and the cleverness of the good Colonel, in sifting false and contradictory evidence until the truth is visible, is amazing. We have met Colonel Gore before, and he may always be counted on to provide a well knit and interesting tale."

   Resources: GAD Wiki HERE - ONTOS HERE and HERE.

~ Not at Night! by Herbert Asbury (1889-1963):
   Contemporary reviews:
   The American Mercury, February 1929 (HERE):
   "This is a collection of tales of horror, and was first printed in England. The stories are almost bare of literary merit, but they are at least sufficiently shocking. There are twenty-five of them. The editor supplies a preface."
   The Outlook, November 7, 1928 by Walter R. Brooks (HERE):
   "Creepy tales for horror addicts and shudder lovers. In his introduction, Herbert Asbury says: 'Critics will look in vain for evidences of the skill and erudition displayed by such masters of the horror story as Poe, Bierce and Blackwood. But any such comparison would be manifestly unfair, for the only criteria applied in selecting these tales were shock and gruesomeness.'  Nevertheless, we don't feel that such a comparison is unfair. We found in our youth that a badly constructed firecracker wouldn't explode. Neither will a badly constructed and badly written horror story horrify. A very small horror, well handled, will give you more cold shudders than all the man-eating plants, boneless girls, vampires, giant leeches, slimy sea monsters and pseudosurgical experiments in this book. Some of them aren't bad, it is true. But a horror story that merely isn't bad hasn't much to recommend it. The trouble is that in practically all of these tales the authors have put the emphasis in the wrong place, on the physical details of blood and ugliness and monstrosity. They have plowed up the dictionary. 'His mordacious propinquity casts a reviling sensation of obscenity about me,' says one. But consider 'The Monkey's Paw,' one of the best horror stories every written. Nothing horrible about the paw itself. The creepiness is all in the handling—the suggestions, the suspense. No, these stories just won't jell."

   Resources: Sweet Freedom HERE - Wikipedia HERE - IMDb HERE.

~ Tiger Claws by Frank L. Packard (1877-1942):
   No contemporary reviews available.

   Resources: Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - ONTOS HERE.

~ The Wrist Mark by J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935):
   Contemporary review:
   The Saturday Review, December 1, 1928 (HERE):
   "Colonel Martin James Engleden, archaeologist and ex-governor of Southmoor Convict Prison, is found dead, murdered, at Barrowsburg. Barrowsburg is a Yorkshire town equipped with all the antiquities of which Mr. Fletcher is fond, including some of those secret pas-sages so plentifully begot by the wars in Charles the First's time. The probabilities are that Colonel Engleden has been done in by a former tenant of Southmoor. The murdered man's nephew brings an ex-warden to Barrowsburg to hunt for ex-convicts. The ex-warden is promptly murdered. More people are murdered before the mystery is cleared up. None of it is as exciting as it should have been, though the book will no doubt do well enough for con-firmed Fletcher addicts. A typographical error—the transposition of nine and eight in a five-pound note's number—hashes up one of the minor clues."

   Resources: Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - Promoting Crime Fiction by Lizzie Hayes HERE.

~ Redwood and Gold by Jackson Gregory (1882-1943):
   No contemporary reviews available.

   Resource: Wikipedia HERE.

- The first two parts about the Mystery Class of '28 are HERE and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"There Was a Smile on His Face As He Died, a Peaceful, Serene Smile"

"The Murder Ray."
By E. K. Jarvis (house pseudonym).
First appearance: Fantastic Adventures, April 1949.
Reprinted in Fantastic Adventures Quarterly, Fall 1949.
Novelette (38 pages).
Online at UNZ HERE.
(Parental caution: Strong language.)
"Kuvar's demand was simple: Pay his price or die. And of course, with the murder ray it was an easy task to make it look like suicide!"
When the mortality rate among a group of six affluent City Club members suddenly rises well above statistical averages, at first everyone wants to treat it as mere happenstance, but they soon must face the truth: Someone is forcing them to kill themselves even though they're not feeling in the least suicidal, and they're sure they know who's behind it (or so they think). The problem that's puzzling everybody isn't why, since obviously it's to extort money from them. The big question is how how is the killer doing it? Michael Trent definitely has an intense interest in finding the answer to that question because, if he doesn't, in less than four days he'll be as dead as the other victims, another apparent suicide . . .

Principal characters:
~ Samuel Beacon:
   "While Trent was looking down at his watch, Beacon took a pistol out of his side coat pocket, pressed it against his temple, and pulled the trigger."
~ Hogue:
   "Hogue, his mouth hanging open like a lizard frozen in the act of reaching for a fly, stared at Beacon in dazed disbelief."
~ Michael (Mike) Trent:
   "Four days is all I'll need you. We'll either have this thing licked by then or I'll be dead."
~ Kuvar:
   "The fact that he gave his victims two weeks to make up their minds, that he told them they would be sorry if they didn't buy, indicated that maybe he was selling them their lives."
~ Marks:
   "I think we're acting like a lot of old women. We're sitting around here worrying about something that's going to happen. Nothing is going to happen. Nothing can happen."
~ Police lieutenant (unnamed):
   "Hell, all five of you saw him shoot himself. The nitrate test shows he's the only man in the room who has fired a gun. If that's not suicide, I'll eat my hat."
~ Cullinane:
   "I hate to disagree with you but I think the cop was right."
~ Wallace Cooper:
   "We'll take this up with the police. We'll demand protection."
~ Parker:
   "Brother, you are on the spot! Well, I've got a partner. We'll both get on this right away and see what we can find out. It'll cost you sixty dollars a day . . ."
~ Patricia (Pat) Beacon:
   "I think these clippings prove that daddy had some idea of what was going on. I think he not only knew that a threat was being made on his life but had some inkling of the form the threat would take."
~ Landlady:
   "Sometimes maybe I see him carrying a kitty into the basement. Then maybe two three days later I find the kitty dead, maybe in the back alley, maybe in the garbage barrel, wher-ever he happened to throw it."
~ Wapping:
   "There was one other gadget that Trent looked at once, then quickly looked away. A comfortable chair with three dangling wires dropping down from the ceiling and a throw switch within reach of the right hand. It was an improvised death chair and it was certainly the last gadget Wapping had ever designed or used."
~ Art:
   "Just drive where I tell you, buddy. And don't try to argue with me because this is a gun I've got here in my hand."
~ Pinky:
   "He nervously changed his grip on the tommy-gun and wiped sweat from the palms of his hands."

Notable descriptive passages:

   "Aster Place was a street of small, one-story frame houses built so closely together that you could stick your head out of your kitchen window and eat your neighbor's meat balls and spaghetti right out of his place without bothering to reach for them. Although it was after eleven o'clock when Trent and Pat Beacon arrived at Aster Place, kids were still yipping in the street, a juke box was blaring in the corner tavern, and barefooted men and women were sitting on their front porches and gossiping in the summer night."

   "The place stank. It smelled of mice and rats and cats and dogs. The basement hadn't been cleaned in years and the musty air rose in little puffs at each step from the thick mantle of dust that covered everything. Whatever else he may have been, Wapping had not been a tidy housekeeper and his superstitious landlady had refused to enter the basement after he died there. A cot with rumpled bed clothing stood against one wall. A two-burner gas stove stood on a table. The sink was still covered with dirty dishes. Wapping had lived in a pig-sty and he apparently hadn't cared."

   "The men around him listened respectfully but without giving any indication that they had even the faintest understanding of what he was saying. They were policemen, accustomed to thinking of murder in terms of the knife and the gun. The explanation of a really scientific method of cold-blooded murder was miles beyond their mental ability. A bullet they under-stood, the way a knife worked, they could grasp, they knew something about poison, the common ways in which men kill each other. But a murder method invented by an erratic genius who had spent most of his life reading books in a dirty basement, a method that depended on an excellent understanding not only of the operation of the human brain but on a thorough-going knowledge of the generation of electro-magnetic radiations of exceedingly high frequency, that method they did not begin to grasp."

   "Witchcraft, in Chicago, in the twentieth century? Witchcraft in a world of concrete and steel, of motor cars and airplanes and bursting atoms? Witchcraft in an age that did not believe in witches, in an era that thought in terms of force and counterforce, of action and reaction, in a century that thought in the cold hard laws of science? Trent shook his head. He forced the thoughts of witchcraft out of his mind. To his way of thinking, that was all non-sense, all misdirected thinking on the part of a race that had not yet learned the laws of cause and effect. Witchcraft could accomplish certain results all right, if you believed in it. Modern psychology had pretty clearly established the way witchcraft worked. You had to believe in it for it to have an effect. Trent didn't believe in it."
- For indeterminate articles about topics broached in our story go HERE and HERE.
- We've recently encountered "E. K. Jarvis" HERE and HERE, and probably will again.

The bottom line:
   I see thee still,
   And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
   Which was not so before.
   — Shakespeare

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Manifold Moods of Arthur Porges

In mystery readerdom Arthur Porges is most famous for what Mike Ashley calls "ingenious impossible crime stories," but as these two contrasting narratives show, he had sufficient range to tap effectively into his characters' emotions as well as their intellects.

"A Small Favor."
By Arthur Porges (1915-2006).
First appearance: Bestseller Mystery Magazine, January 1960.
Short short story (6 pages).
Online at UNZ HERE.
"As a member of the midnight profession of burglary, Franz struck with rapidity and precision. Nothing stood in his way, until one night a woman's sobs. . . "
Like so many of his ilk, sooner or later a blackmailer will let greed overrule his better judgment; what this one doesn't count on is another criminal, with better ethics:

   "There was a tone in the blackmailer's voice he had heard often before. Sometimes tenor; then, again, bass. Even contralto. It was a note of pleasure; the purr of a cat with an injured mouse to play with. Franz fought an irrational urge to run, to cringe, to scream, to beg, to turn to wood and be as invulnerable to pain."

- A while back we stumbled across another story dealing with a burglar and a lady in distress published fifty-seven years earlier; go HERE to link to it.

~ ~ ~
"No Killer Has Wings."
By Arthur Porges (1915-2006).
First appearance: AHMM, January 1961.
Reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) (for sale HERE).
Short story (~16 pages).
Online HERE (for the moment, anyhow).
". . . the victim is Colonel McCabe, a retired Army Officer, sixty-two years old. Yesterday morning, quite early, he went down to his private beach, as usual, accompanied by his dog. After a brief paddling in the shallows, he dozed on a blanket, and while he was dozing somebody came up to him, carrying a walking stick, and calmly smashed his skull with the heavy knob. It seems beyond a doubt that the killer must have been Larry Channing, the colonel’s nephew, a boy of twenty-four, who lives in the same house."
Like the policeman handling the investigation says, it all adds up to a "nice open-and-shut case" against Larry Channing. Dr. Hoffman warns his friends that he will go where the evidence leads irrespective of personal friendships, so that if Larry is guilty, so be it; but gathering the evidence will prove laborious, painstaking, and frustratingly inconclusive—until, that is, Hoffman has a brain-storm . . .

Principal characters:
~ Dr. Joel Hoffman, a pathologist and qualified expert in forensic medicine:
   "If Larry is innocent, you’ve got a real classic here – a locked room murder, basically. The tracks on the sand show plainly that nobody else came anywhere near the victim."
~ Dana, Lieutenant Ader's niece:
   "You’re the only one who can help us. Everything adds up all wrong. Larry couldn’t have done it, and yet there’s nobody else who went out there."
~ Lieutenant Ader, an honest cop:
   ". . . she thinks he’s innocent. Why, I don’t know. I’ve told her about your work before, and now she expects you to perform a grade A miracle to order. In other words, Dana’s picked you to smash my nice open-and-shut case to little pieces."
~ Wheeler, the curator of the family museum:
   "[He] was obviously proud of the collection, and had become a trained specialist on medieval warfare through his research for the colonel. He enthusiastically demonstrated the correct use of several outlandish weapons, handling them with the assurance of an expert."
~ Gustavus Adolphus:
   "If he could talk, our job would have been a lot easier."

   "Oddly enough, it occurred to me that these organisms, so loathsome to the laymen, were not only gracefully proportioned, and miracles of design, but never killed each other through greed or hate, and would never, never build a hydrogen bomb to destroy the world."
   ". . . in fact, I like playing detective. For that matter, who doesn’t?"
   "When you’ve met enough murderers, one thing soon becomes as clear as distilled water: there’s simply no way to tell a potential killer in advance of the crime."
   "I’ve known cops who wouldn’t mess with a case that was all sewed up to please their wives, children, or grandparents. He was doing it for a mere niece."
   ". . . I only do wonders on Wednesday and Friday; this is Tuesday, remember."
   ". . . the coroner, an ancient incubus who missed his forte as a meat-cutter for some supermarket."
   ". . . most murders are not subtle; they are chock full of blunders. When a man is keyed up to the point of killing, he’s not likely to be a cool planner."
   "How many of the other suspects fly? Because, believe me, it’ll take wings or teleportation to explain how the old man got killed without the murderer leaving tracks on the sand."
   "There’s a process called 'brain-storming', very popular on Madison Avenue. It consists of throwing the rational mind out of gear, and letting its motor race. You give your wildest fancies free rein, hoping to find gold among the dross. I tried that, and came up with some weird notions."
   ". . . I went home to bed, and dreamed of a skin-diving coach dog that terrorized the bathers."
   "Maybe John Dickson Carr can make up and solve these locked room puzzles on paper, but this was too much for me."
   ". . . it makes a difference, when you have a personal interest in an investigation."
   "A murderer is full of fears generally, and the worst of them is an eyewitness to the crime."
- Wikipedia (HERE), Mike Grost (HERE), the SFE (HERE), and the ISFDb (HERE) have oodles of information about Arthur Porges's mystery and science fiction.
- Several web sources focus exclusively on Porges and his writings: a fanpage HERE (The Arthur Porges Fan Site), an essay on his mystery fiction HERE ("A Talent to Burn" by Richard Simms), and a nicely compiled annotated list of many of his locked room stories HERE (The Locked Room Mystery).

The bottom line: "In terms of mystery stories that feature a locked-room, or impossible-crime puzzle, Porges was immensely prolific. A master at writing plots that revolve around a scientific idea, Porges produced, during his lifetime, a diverse body of work within this disciplined literary field."
Richard Simms

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"It Must Have Been Allotropy"

"The Vanishing Diamonds."
By Charles R. Tanner (1896-1974).
First appearance: Amazing Stories, June 1938.
Short story (10 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF).
"A fortune in jewels awaits Professor Stillwell, discoverer of flawless artificial diamonds. Then the gangsters decide to muscle in—and the diamonds begin to disappear."
Chapter I: "I sometimes think that he is not just exactly human . . ."
Chapter II: "A Startling Discovery"
Chapter III: "Disappearing Diamonds"
Chapter IV: "A New Arrival"
Afterword: "Meet the Authors"

Some of the best science fiction (SF) deals with how technological developments affect the individuals who invent them and the society as a whole in which they live; given enough time a list of thousands of stories (and films derived from them) could be adduced, such as The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, of course, but also such seemingly un-SFnal productions as The Man in the White Suit (which our story prefigures by a dozen years) and Singin' in the Rain.

In today's tale, Professor Stillwell, an intellectual polymath and very much the classic absent-minded professor, quite by accident makes a discovery with the potential of changing society, but especially the economy, in ways no one can predict with certainty—but it's safe to assume it'll probably be catastrophic.

If value depends on scarcity, then abundance diminishes value, a fact of life our accidental innovator absentmindedly dismisses, but one which isn't lost on anybody else: his good friend Clem, an incensed mob of jewellers, a man from the Treasury Department—and this little guy with a tiny red moustache, a snub-nosed automatic in his pocket, and an unhealthy interest in getting rich quick.

Principal characters:
~ Professor Isaac N. Stillwell:
   "Yes, I guess it's diamond, all right."
~ Clement Jordan (first-person narrator):
   "Why, man, there's millions in this."
~ Marjorie Barrett (a.k.a. "The Pest"):
   "I think there's something funny about those diamonds."
~ The T-man (unnamed):
   "Looks like there's going to be a regular convention before the night is over."
~ Jeremiah Small:
   "I knew there was something phony about this, but—making 'em!"
~ Tony the Slip:
   "Well, me and a couple of pals has got interested in them diamonds of yours."
- The '30s were a hard time for Charles Tanner; see Wikipedia HERE, a tribute webpage HERE, and his own comments at the end of the story.
- Naturally, Tanner hasn't escaped the attention of the SFE HERE and the ISFDb HERE.
- FictionMags informs us that Tanner produced at least two stories featuring Professor Stillwell, the one above and "The Stillwell Degravitator" (Amazing Stories, February 1941: "Stillwell saw only good in his machine that overcame gravity—until he put it to practical use!").

The bottom line: "Some fool has invented an indestructible cloth. Where is he? How much does he want?"
Sir John Kierlaw

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"One Rash Move from Any of You Will Mean Her Death"

"The Smiling Mask."
By Anonymous.
First appearance: Adventure, September 17, 1921.
Short story (14 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE (set page selector to 3).
(Note: Text is faded but readable.)
"An Enthralling New LONG COMPLETE TALE of Mystery and Adventure, introducing DIXON HAWKE, the renowned Detective, Tommy Burke, his fearless young assistant, and the amazing character known as The Black Duke."
Despite the hyped-up introduction just above, this story doesn't "introduce" the character of Dixon Hawke to the world (that was years earlier) but only to the readership of Adventure, a durable British boys' magazine that ran to more than 1,800 issues over sixty years.
Chapter titles:
   One: "Thanks from the Black Duke."
   Two: "The Price of Silence."
   Three: "What the Morning Brought."
   Four: "A Clue Removed."
   Five: "Yokota Makes a Bonfire."
   Six: "A Trail Across the Marshes."
   Seven: "A Surprise for Dixon Hawke."
   Eight: "Hawke and Tommy Go Fishing."
   Nine: "An Eventful Night."
   Ten: "A Confession."
   Eleven: "The Mysterious Man is Found."
   Twelve: "The Sealed Envelope."
   Thirteen: "The Duke at Bay."
   Fourteen: "A Change of Destination."

The set-up is classic: a fabulous jewel, the Star of Jalna, is stolen right out from under the noses of an assembly of fifteen men by the infamous thief known as the Black Duke. Almost immediately the reader learns who- and howdunit, who in fact the notorious Black Duke is; to his own surprise, though, the thief becomes a victim of blackmail—and, again, almost imme-diately we learn who the blackmailer is.

Comes the dawn, however, and the blackmailer has himself been murdered, "an ebony-handled knife protruding from his breast, his eyes staring sightlessly upward—rigid in death," in a locked room in a country house no less, with a note signed by the Black Duke nearby; but the reader will doubtless agree with the police inspector when he remarks, "I haven't much use for this dramatic stuff, and I don't believe a fellow who committed a crime like this would leave his visiting-card behind him." Of course, that could be a double bluff. Enter Dixon Hawke, for whom this case isn't a mere robbery any more, but a full-blown locked room murder puzzle with a surfeit of suspects.

Principal characters:
~ Montague Eldridge:
   "What is the use of locking them away in a safe deposit? I like to have them near me, so that I can examine them when I like. My safe is fire-proof, and burglar proof—"
~ Matthew Staples:
   "No safe is burglar-proof."
~ Julian Leppard:
   "Are you suggesting that one of us has the diamond, Mr. Hawke? I suggest we submit to a search."
~ Dixon Hawke:
   "Present day miracles are capable of explanation."
~ Mrs. Abbott:
   "Oh, you—you mustn't think Miss Margaret had anything to do with killing her uncle."
~ Margaret Childs:
   "I hate him! Sometimes, I—I feel I shall kill him."
~ Gilbert Kendall:
   "I—I think I hate him, too, for the way he treats you."
~ Yokota:
   "I burn some rubbish, sir, that inconveniently encumbered the yard."
~ Tommy Burke:
   "My hat! it's a gloomy sort of a show, guv'nor. Reckon I'd get the creeps if I had to hang out here."
~ Inspector Robert Goodair:
   "Bit of a puzzle, Mr. Hawke. There isn't a mark on the flower border nor on the soft gravel, so it's dead certain a ladder was not used. If it wasn't for that locked door, I'd say this was an inside job."
~ Hookey Noakes:
   "I'll scoot back and get the boys together. Seems to me rather a risky game . . ."
~ Arthur Childs:
   "I was innocent of the charge brought against me; my uncle hated me, and I believe he knew the truth. He let me go to penal servitude, and I believe he blackmailed the man who was really guilty."

Typos: "Hwake"; "thn girl."
- Background articles on Dixon Hawke (a Sherlock Holmes/Nick Carter clone who allegedly appeared in over 5,500 adventures written by uncounted authors of highly variable abilities) can be found HERE (Public Domain Superheroes), HERE (Mystery*File article by David Vineyard: "The most important thing to note about Dixon Hawke is that young Kenneth Millar, Ross Macdonald, was a fan, and the Hawke books are fun, but they are much closer to the comics than even the hero pulps"), and HERE (The Crime Fighters by Lofts and Adley), the last summarizing the character this way:
Dixon Hawke was called by many 'The Scottish Detective' because he was created and issued by the powerful publishing firm of D. C. Thomson of Dundee, Scotland. Hawke first appeared in 1919 in the Dixon Hawke Library, which ran through 576 issues right up to 1941, followed by Dixon Hawke Case Books, consisting of short stories. He also appeared in short stories in The Adventure. In the early 1970s he was still appearing in the The Sunday Post newspaper. Dozens of authors are known to have written the exploits of this famous sleuth.
Dixon Hawke was tall and aquiline, wore a dressing gown, and smoked a blackened briar. His assistant was Tommy Burke, and he had a bloodhound called Solomon. Hawke was a very influential detective, well enough known to dine with the Prime Minister. His friends at the Yard were Detective Inspector Baxter, Chief of Scotland Yard’s C.I.D. and Flying Squad, and William Baxford, Chief Assistant to Detective Inspector Duncan McPhinney. Hawke’s rooms were in Dover Street, just off Piccadilly and opposite the Ritz Hotel, and his house-keeper was a Mrs. Martha Benvie. A strange assortment of garments and disguises was littered in a small windowless room, sandwiched between two bookcases and hidden behind a curtain, and his rooms also had a somewhat hidden back flight of stairs, which few people knew about and which allowed him to get out unobserved. Hawke had a big Sunbeam roadster and a two-seater sports car that Tommy Burke drove. — W.O.G. Lofts and Derek Adley, The Crime Fighters

The bottom line: "Two and two, Mrs. Kendall, always make four."
— Dixon Hawke

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"I Can't Figure What Ever Made You Take Up This Sleuth-hound Business Instead of Turning into a Painter"

Fletcher Pratt was many things, including a serious military historian as well as a fiction writer; when it came to science fiction and fantasy, he was singularly adept at both writing and criticizing it. Below we highlight his two short novels dealing with future crime which feature Secret Service Agent George H. Jones; the Thrilling Wonder Stories editor (Samuel Mines) felt it necessary to add this preface:

   AT LEAST three different people prominent in publishing have told us recently they believe science fiction is taking the place of the detective story and will eventually assume the position of popularity the whodunit once held.
   This may be prophecy or only opinion. Despite some excellent writing in the detective field the stories tend to stereotypes; whereas science fiction is primarily a literature of ideas. Our able Fletcher Pratt, however, became interested in one angle of this: what would crime of the future be like? Would it not be as full of new ideas as the technology of that civilization could provide?
  The answer is a science-fiction-detective story. We found it absorbing. Will it replace the detective story, or merely found a new branch of science fiction?
   —The Editor 

"Double Jeopardy."
By Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).
Illustrations by Virgil Finlay.
First appearance: Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1952.
Novelette (36 pages).
Online at UNZ HERE.
(Note: Some smudged text.)
"It began with a miracle-drug, a reversed half-dollar, and a girl named Betty-Marie, who preferred math to men. . . . "
When some funny money (not funny ha-ha, funny peculiar) suddenly appears, it falls to the Secret Service to investigate; but it'll be up to Agent Jones to surmount a very high stone wall in order to determine what the faux dough has to do with a rare drug, perfect replicas of even rarer objets d'art, a girl with a knock-out figure but a fluctuating personality, an old college pal acting like a clam, and a man whose finger- and toe-nails have turned yellow and fallen off.

Principal characters:
~ George Helmfleet Jones:
   "You know how easy it is to spot the difference between someone who's merely hiding something, and someone who's hiding something damaging."
~ The Chief:
   ". . . there's something very queer going on, and more than one government agency would like to know what it is."
~ Richard Mansfield:
   "Wait till you see our Betty-Marie. She's my secret sorrow."
~ Betty-Marie Taliaferro:
   "Tell me something, Mr. Jones. Do you Secret Service people find our best modern technical processes make it easier for counterfeiters to work or for you to catch them?"
~ Angela Benson:
   "If you want to marry me, I will."
~ Mrs. Twining:
   "Miss Angela, you know very well that the boss told you not to let anyone in here, ever."
~ Everett Benson:
   "Oh, so you're one of those April Fool dicks with a tin star who goes around with some floozy trying to work the badger game! I thought that story about you being interested in art was pretty phony."
~ Abe Schneidermann:
   "As this is kidnapping, which is a fed rap, even though not in our division, I start across the street to help her, but before I can get there, the lights go out, and the next thing I know, I am here."
~ Chief Moran:
   "There wasn't any robbery, you see. Probably some college kids having a practical joke for themselves."
~ Detective Aldi:
   "I said it was a Rochester job."

Typos: "I like fotball on the video"; "the missing objects d'art had been discovered"; "it wasn't too a long walk."

~ ~ ~

Here's how editor Mines introduced the next story, which, mirabile dictu, is an SFnal take on the classic locked room puzzle:

   A GRASSHOPPER can jump a hundred times its own length; a man barely four times his. An ant can walk off with a load twenty times its own weight while a strong man can lift about twice his and a horse or an elephant considerably less than their own weights. And the big old dinosaurs could hardly stagger along under the crushing load of their own muscle.
   The trouble lies in the square cube law, which states that if you square your size you cube your weight. Translated, if you are twice as big you are not merely twice as heavy, but eight times as heavy. Which means you've got to have eight times as much muscle to move you, which adds to your weight—and so starts a vicious cycle which is the main reason the dinosaurs died out. They couldn't move.
   The same principle applies in power mechanics. If you double the weight or the speed of your car, you need eight times as much horsepower to shove it.
   The square cube law sometimes gives engineers gray hair, but it has given our Fletcher Pratt the springboard nudge for a very different kind of story. Also, it's a sequel to DOUBLE JEOPARDY, which you read in the April issue.
   —The Editor

"The Square Cube Law."
By Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).
Illustrations by Virgil Finlay.
First appearance: Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1952.
Novelette (39 pages).
Online at UNZ HERE.
"The disappearance of three million dollars from the sealed rocket ship was a man-sized problem. But the answer was bigger than that!"
Working on the flimsiest of leads, Secret Service Agent Jones is forced to take risks to unravel an intricate case of theft, counterfeiting, and impersonation, culminating in a double murder; as he tells his colleagues, "This whole thing shows long and careful planning," going back years.

Principal characters:
~ George Helmfleet Jones:
   "When we run into one of these cases, we always look for the man who quits the job."
~ Dr. Runciman:
   "After the spy-ray system was installed, it seemed rather pointless to keep a watchman up all night, so an alarm system was rigged to awaken him and at the same time to notify the police if anyone attempted to enter, either through the gate or by way of the fence. On the night in question, he was not awakened."
~ Richard Mansfield:
   "The fellows we had here at the time all thought it was an inside job."
~ Betty (no hyphen) Marie Taliaferro:
   "But we haven't been counterfeiting anything!"
~ Angela Jones (née Benson):
   "It's nothing serious, I think. Just that somebody's been snooping around to find out what case you were on."
~ Dewey O'Neill:
   "You got a lot of faith in these government psychs. Me, I think they're a bunch of witch-doctors with political pull."
~ Case Executive Howard:
   "Do your theories go so far as to explain how the money got out of the rocket?"
~ Di Paduano of the Federal Reserve:
   "May I remind you that your questions are an invasion of personal privacy unless you have a court order or a prima facie case against him? I'm afraid you'll have to ask someone else. Good afternoon."
~ Esselstein:
   "He seems to have just disappeared."
~ The Supt.:
   "Some babe! She drives up in one of them Cardigan two-seat bubble cars, the kind with the one wheel in front."
~ Swigart:
   "What can you do? The first thing he did was yell for a mouthpiece, and the springer won't even let us put the lights on him. Personal liberty laws!"
~ Baker, the rocket port official:
   "There isn't a chance of substituting another rocket for the one that starts out. You'd have to have powerful radar stations and a landing somewhere, and our own stations would register the difference in flight."
~ Hinrich:
   "When a parcel is claimed here, instead of being delivered, we make them put up enough identification to get past St. Peter into Heaven. I don't remember what this guy had, but it must of been plenty good."
~ Dolly Di Paduano:
   "Look, I do know Wesley Warburton quite well, but it's silly to think that he would have anything to do with a robbery."
~ Wesley Eustace Warburton:
   "He found the girl surprisingly co-operative—and she paid for it with her life."

Typos: "Inductions were completed"; "contrasted strangely wth the way"; "he came over here he got that phone call."

- Wikipedia has more about Fletcher Pratt HERE, with additional bibliographical info at those indispensable databases, the SFE HERE and the ISFDb HERE.
- Pratt would combine both of these stories into a fixup novel, Double Jeopardy (1952); see Wikipedia HERE for more [WARNING: Plot SPOILERS; read the stories first]; several editions of the book are for sale HERE [SPOILERS in the product description].
- At one point in "The Square Cube Law," Agent Jones says: "Can you imagine what the economic effects of having any number of these reproducers in action would be? Neither can anybody else, and they don't dare take the chance." Jim Henry III has imagined some of the possible effects HERE: "Zookeepers and veterinarians would be the new bankers," for example.
- As with shapeshifters, Star Trek also has its "reproducers"; see HERE (Wikipedia), HERE (Memory Alpha), and HERE (TV Tropes) for the 411 on that extremely implausible technology.
- As for the pesky square-cube law, see HERE (Wikipedia) and HERE (TV Tropes).
Fletcher Pratt (left) with Christopher Morley (center) and Rex Stout (1944)

The bottom line: "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"
Sherlock Holmes