Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"There May Be Something Even More Sinister Than Murder Behind It"

IN A PREVIOUS posting we featured a conventional private eye story by an author who specialized in impossible crime fiction. In the tale that follows, we have just the opposite: an impossible crime story by a writer not known for them. Our author, the legendary Fredric Brown, manages to do what few writers ever could, deftly juggle two genres, SF and detec-tive fiction (impossible crime subdivision) to make a coherent whole; this blurb from the ISFDb should give you an idea:
 A police investigator on Callisto is confronted with the impossible murder of a man assassinated in five different and contradictory ways, according to eye-witnesses. And this is only the beginning . . .
By Fredric Brown (1906-72).
First appearance: Thrilling Wonder Stories, Fall 1943.
Reprinted numerous times (HERE), including The Saint's Choice of Impossible Crime (1945).
Novelette (26 pages).
Online at (HERE).
"Police Lieutenant Rod Caquer Tackles a Case of Murder on Callisto and Pits Himself Against a Sinister Fiend Who Plots to Degrade Mankind to the Plane of Robot Slaves!"
Chapter I: "Five Way Corpse"
Chapter II: "Terror by Night"
Chapter III: "Blackdex"
Chapter IV: "Rule of Thumb"
Chapter V: "Nine-Man Morris"
Chapter VI: "Too Familiar Face"
Chapter VII: "Wheels Within the Wheel"

Some days you find yourself wishing you'd stayed in bed. A police lieutenant who has never had to deal with a murder case finds himself in the middle of one:
"He was shot with an explosive-type gun and a blaster. Someone split his skull with a sword, chopped off his head with an axe and a disintegrator beam. Then after he was on the utility stretcher, someone stuck his head back on because it wasn't off when I saw him. And plugged up the bullet-hole . . ."
That was the set-up that confronted Rod Caquer, and one can not blame him for beginning to wish it had been a simple case of murder.
Principal characters:
~ Willem Deem, the book-and-reel shop proprieter:
   "He was interesting to listen to, but he was a sarcastic little beast. I think he had a perverted sense of humor."
~ Barr Maxon, Regent of Sector Three:
   "The case must be cracked. A murder, in this day and age, is bad enough. But an unsolved one is unthinkable. It would encourage further crime."
~ Lt. Rod Caquer, Sector Three of Callisto:
   "He had hoped against hope that it would turn out to have been an accidental death after all. But the skull had been cleaved down to the eyebrows—a blow struck by a strong man with a heavy sword."
~ Brager, a policeman:
   "I was walking by on my beat when I heard the shot."
~ Dr. Skidder, the Medico-in-Chief:
   "What's the matter? Never see a blaster death before? Guess you wouldn't have at that, Rod, you're too young. But fifty years ago when I was a student, we got them once in a while."
~ The utility man:
   "Opinion? When a man has his head cut off, what two opinions can there be, Lieutenant?"
~ Jane Gordon, the "Icicle":
   "Rod, stop driveling."
~ Perry Peters, Deem's co-worker:
   "I do know one thing about Willem that might possibly have something to do with his death, although I don't see how, myself."
~ Professor Jan Gordon, Jane's father:
   "You've never heard of the Kaprelian Order or the Vargas Wheel?"
~ Lt. Borgesen:
   "The world's gone nuts."

Typos: "he had cracy notions"; "it take us five minutes"; "Jane asked Caquer" (should be the other way around); "offered one hundreds credits"; "would, bit it doesn't"; "Thue, there were cases"; "brought a big chance."
- We last touched base with Fredric Brown, at that time in his role as a crime fiction writer, nearly a year ago (HERE).
- In his survey of SF detectives, "The Super-Sleuths of Science Fiction" (1966), Sam Moskowitz notes about "Daymare":
"This story represented the entrance into the scientific detective field of the crack professional capable of homogenizing both the detective story and the science fiction story into an acceptable blend." — See (HERE) and (HERE).
- Not surprisingly, TV Tropes (HERE) cheerfully attacks this story's theme, which has become a time-frayed cliché.
- Thanks to space probe fly-bys, Callisto, the second largest moon of Jupiter, does seem to be one of the better candidates for future colonization; see (HERE) for what's known now (73 years later) about this moon, and (HERE) for how some fictioneers have dealt with it.

The bottom line: "His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it's been dry-cleaned."
Dr. Yen Lo

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"You Won't Be Able to Talk—Not When You're a Corpse!"

JOSEPH COMMINGS is best known as one of the few pulpsters who specialized in impossible crimes, but in the following story there's not even a glimmer of that ingenuity. Instead we have a tough guy yarn that in its short span could serve as a perfect model of hardboiled noir: the compromised lone wolf private eye who draws the line at murder, a prize everybody wants but nobody deserves, brutal cops, and a lethal femme fatale . . .

"Gems Glow with Blood."
By Joseph Commings (1913-92).
First appearance: Crime Fiction Stories, December 1950 (only issue).
Short story (14 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus (HERE; select page 22).
"Twelve states know about you. Why be shy with me?"
Being a shamus can have its perks:
She was a come-hither blonde. She was carrying a quarter-million dollars' worth of stolen rubies. She was the type who needed very little urging to make herself at home.
However . . .
I leaned in the doorway. She'd have to go through me to get out. There was nothing aimless in the way her automatic was pointing. I started to reach out. She pulled the trigger. . . .
That's not an automatic.
~ Gertie Sale:
   "Her eyes were sea-blue. Like watery graves."
~ Hod Danto:
   "I wasn't what the police would call an absolutely scrupulous private operator."
~ Renny Jordahl:
   "Jordahl, with the big Fifth Avenue jeweler's front to cover up his crooked business."
~ Jan Bardijov:
   "He came on to the United States, smuggling in a quarter of a million in the best pigeon's blood."
~ Cougar and O'Neil:
   "Cougar hit me. I tried to ride the punch and topple over backwards toward the emergency stairway. I rolled over into the dark at the foot of the stairs. Both of them came in after me. Cougar's partner, O'Neil, was wearing copper-toed bulldog shoes. And he was a kicker."

- As this obituary (HERE) for Joseph Commings perceptively indicates, he excelled at the impossible crime problem; there's more at a relatively small entry at Wikipedia (HERE), a more substantial GAD Wiki article (HERE), and the admirably thorough The Locked Room Mystery website (HERE). The latest collection of Commings's fiction, Banner Deadlines (2004) from Crippen & Landru, is reviewed (HERE) on Mystery*File and still barely available for sale (HERE).

The bottom line: "It's a bonny thing. Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil's pet baits. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed."
Sherlock Holmes

Monday, December 5, 2016

"He Didn't Bother to Check His Work"

"X-Ray Murder."
By Milton Kaletzky (1911-88).
First appearance: Amazing Stories, September 1940.
Reprinted in Amazing Stories Quarterly, Spring 1941.
Short short story (5 pages).
Online at (HERE).
"The test of an efficient scientist and his success doesn't lie in genius, but in attention to exact detail and careful checking—even in plotting murder"
As this story confirms, no murderer can escape . . . himself.
Main characters:
~ Banks:
   "It was these rays that were the great discovery. For Banks had found that with these rays, he could disrupt and rebuild atoms and molecules at will! Transmutation on a large scale was at last possible, and the secret of creation was within man's grasp!"
~ The director:
   "If he doesn't improve very soon, out he goes. That's final!"
~ Leonard Horton:
   "Tomorrow morning he must put his plan into action."

- All we could find about our author was his bibliographical data (HERE).
- The murder weapon in this story is more technically complex than the one in Asimov's rather similar "The Billiard Ball" (HERE), so it lacks the beautiful simplicity of the Good Doctor's conception.

The bottom line: "They who search after the Philosopher's Stone [are] by their own rules obliged to a strict and religious life."
Isaac Newton

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"He Seemed Gifted with the Instincts of a Born Criminal"

ANIMAL SLEUTHS, especially cats, have been popular for years (TV Tropes). Here, possibly ahead of its time, is a story about a detective of the avian persuasion.

"Jim Crow—Detective."
By Stanley Edwards Johnson (?-?).
First appearance: The Black Cat, October 1898.
Short short story (6 pages).
Online at SFFAudio (HERE) (PDF).
"It's just for form's sake. I can't serve a process of law on a bird."
Our narrator learns just how true that old saying is about it taking a thief to catch a thief, even if in this case one of those thieves isn't human . . .
- Apart from having authored seven short stories in ten years (FictionMags), Stanley Edwards Johnson must remain an enigma.
- Our "detective" in the story is most likely a paid up member in good standing of the species Corvus brachyrhynchos brachyrhynchos (Wikipedia).

The bottom line: "The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it."
The Bible

Friday, December 2, 2016

"Sometimes I Think He's Really Alien to This World at Heart"

"Murder from the Moon."
By Robert Bloch (1917-94).
First appearance: Amazing Stories, November 1942.
Reprinted in Amazing Stories Quarterly, Summer 1943; Science Fiction Adventures, January 1973; and The Fear Planet and Other Unusual Destinations (2005).
Short story (14 pages).
Online at (HERE).
(Note: Text is faded but legible.)
"Murder can be committed with two hands very well, but with four, it gives the killer quite a decided advantage indeed"
Chapter I: "Warm Welcome"
Chapter II: "The Strangler from the Sky"
Chapter III: "The Lunatic"
Interplanetary relations take a hit when Earth's first visitor from the Moon dies unexpectedly at a reception. Was it murder? And if it was, could the killer be one of these people . . .

~ Changara Dass:
   "Only Changara Dass, here, believed. He was my father's friend. He fought to keep Solar Foundation legally in my father's name."
~ Stephen Bennet:
   "Yes, I was born there in space—when my father locked my mother into the compartments and set the controls to chart the voyage back to earth."
~ Lila Valery:
   "Stephen, dear, you're talking too much. Let's get on with the reception."
~ Bill Stone:
   "It's my business to go after news. Something tells me there's plenty of it right in this room."
~ Professor Champion:
   ". . . I'll see to it that you get your story. I'm interested in going to the bottom of this affair myself. You'll get your story, I promise you, and shortly."
~ The lunar visitor:
   "I must see you at once. I have an urgent message for you. I cannot delay any longer. I had thought to humor you by attending this—reception, you call it?—and then leave."

. . . or could the cause of death be someone—or something—else entirely?

Typo: "Dou you think"
- A review of The Fear Planet and Other Unusual Destinations (2005) is (HERE).
- Last August (HERE) we encountered Robert Bloch hiding behind another name.

The bottom line: "We all know interspecies romance is weird."
Tim Burton

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"Your Mimi Has a Heart Like an Artichoke with a Leaf for Every Man"

"Riviera Renegade."
By Lawrence G. Blochman (1900-75).
First appearance: Collier's Weekly, November 20, 1948.
Reprinted in The Saint Detective Magazine, February 1956; The Saint Detective Magazine (U.K.), October 1956; and Creasey Mystery Magazine, May 1957.
Short short short story (3 pages).
Online at UNZ (start HERE) and (finish HERE; scroll down to page 72).
"It is not often that such a desirable woman so richly deserves to be murdered"
Sometimes war produces casualties years after the fighting has ended—and the guilty, too often, seem to escape their just punishment:
ACCORDING to the newspapers, Monsieur le Juge, you are the examining magistrate in the case of James Patterson, the American soldier who was arrested last night while carrying the body of a woman named Mimi Lacourt from a bench on the Promenade des Anglais. The papers say the soldier was about to dispose of the body in the sea, but—
A story told in the first person, it's a plea to spare the life of an American soldier accused of murder, offered by an expatriate artist who sat out the German occupation of France. As you'll see, he has good reason to defend his young friend . . .
Principal characters:
~ James Patterson:
   "Deliberately, Monsieur le Juge, as though I were doing penance, I forced myself to make friends with the G.I.s. I was in turn adopted by one of them from Iowa, my own state, a lad named Jim Patterson, who called me 'Pop.'"
~ Mimi Lacourt:
   "You knew Mimi Lacourt, of course. Everyone knew her—many quite intimately. She was a glittering ornament to our casinos before the war. She was extremely beautiful, as you know, with dark eyes that turned men's blood to strong wine. She wore clothes with an art that displayed her superb body as a jeweler exhibits a fabulous gem in his showcase."
~ Paul Murdock:
   "I hesitated about coming to you, Monsieur le Juge, because people in Nice call me a renegade, a bad American, and a collaborationist. It is true that I did not return to America when Marshal Pétain surrendered—perhaps because I was too comfortable in my Riviera villa, perhaps because I have lived in France for forty years, perhaps because, although I am no longer young, I still love to paint the red sea cliffs and the olive-covered hills and the houses drowsing in the sun beside the blue Mediterranean."
~ Major (now Mr.) Giacomo:
   "In Cannes I again ran into my friend Major Giacomo, only now he was Mr. Giacomo and wore civilian clothes. After the Americans came to Italy, he had thrown away his Fascist uniform, produced his U.S. citizenship papers, and gone to work for the military government to help locate stolen art treasures."
- Our latest contact with Lawrence G. Blochman was (HERE).
- Blochman mentions the Negresco hotel, which almost had delayed casualties just last year; see (HERE).

The bottom line: "To be a femme fatale you don't have to be slinky and sensuous and disastrously beautiful, you just have to have the will to disturb."
Alice Munro

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"To Many Authors the Solution of Crime in a Science Fiction Setting Was Little More Than a Tongue-in-Cheek Literary Toy"

LONG-TIME (or perhaps that should be LONG-SUFFERING) READERS of ONTOS might have noticed that we've been on an extended "science fiction crossovers with detective fiction" jag, since over the last couple of years we've been scouring the Internet searching for stories that combine our two favorite genres—and so far there seems to be no end of them.

Half a century ago Sam Moskowitz, the premier historian of science fictiondom, noticed the same thing and published two articles in issues of Worlds of Tomorrow that briefly survey the sui generis SF-tec subgenre from its beginnings with Poe to the mid-1960s—parts of which, we regret to say, reveal the solutions. Caveat lector!

"The Sleuth in Science Fiction."
By Sam Moskowitz (1920-97).
First appearance: Worlds of Tomorrow, January 1966.
Survey (12 pages).
Online at (HERE).
(Note: Occasional SPOILERS.)
"Sam Moskowitz traces the history of detectives in science fiction—with new clues on every page!"
Of course, Moskowitz rightly designates Edgar Allan Poe as the one who started it all, being the originator of both the modern detective story and science fiction tale, but Poe never tried combining the two.

Instead, Moskowitz points to Balmer and MacHarg's Luther Trant stories as the first full-fledged SF-detective crossovers, in whose wake followed Arthur B. Reeve and his durable character Craig Kennedy, and occasional interlopers like Sax Rohmer, with his archvillain Fu Manchu, armed to the teeth with world-conquering superscientific gizmos, and tirelessly pursued by Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, the Holmes and Watson of Rohmer's oeuvre.

Hugo Gernsback played no small role in this, constantly promoting scientific detection in all of his publications, consistently printing crossovers in his otherwise popular general science magazines. Gernsback failed, however, to catch the public's imagination as completely as the early Luther Trant and Craig Kennedy stories, and was forced to transform his high-quality Scientific Detective Monthly into a more conventional crime fiction magazine; the fact that America was deep into the Depression didn't help matters.

- On his megasite (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection) Mike Grost has entries about the early SF tecs discussed by Moskowitz (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE).
- Two issues of Scientific Detective Monthly (SDM) are available at the Comic Book Plus site (HERE) and (HERE).
- One story that just missed publication in SDM but did see the light of day elsewhere in another Gernsback magazine is "The Murders on the Moon-Ship" (1931), also available at Comic Book Plus (HERE; select page 48); unfortunately, Moskowitz blabs the solution.

Moskowitz followed up his first installment with:

"The Super-Sleuths of Science Fiction."
By Sam Moskowitz (1920-97).
First appearance: Worlds of Tomorrow, March 1966.
Survey (12 pages).
Online at (HERE).
(Note: Occasional SPOILERS.)
"Science fiction's favorite historian tells us about the early days of sf detective stories—and who dun it!"
Moskowitz resumes his short history of the science fictional detective with a character he discussed at some length in the previous piece, David H. Keller's Taine of San Francisco ("The Taine stories were uneven in quality and loosely constructed"), and notes again the major influence exerted by Hugo Gernsback:
Though the publication of Scientific Detective Monthly and Amazing Detective Tales had done much to refine the art of the scientific detective story, progress was not continuous, nor was it uniform in all publications. The thinking of the editors of that day was that if a crime is committed or solved through the utilization of established scientific principles, it constituted a legitimate science fiction story, regardless of whether any element of fantasy was present. Their logic was not shared by their readers. Other than Taine, scientific detective stories enjoyed small popularity, though editors continued to use them.
Moskowitz points to other fictioneers besides the professional SF pulpsters who tried their hands at SF-tec fiction during the 1920s, the most surprising instance being Erle Stanley Gardner (laboring for top dollar at Argosy):
It was inevitable that he [Gardner] would attempt to incorporate the crime and detective theme into his science fiction, just as he had done in his desert yarns.
As for one of those professional SF pulpsters:
. . . undoubtedly the crime story in a science fiction setting that created the greatest impact during this period [the '20s] was Murray Leinster's "The Darkness on Fifth Avenue.". . . In referring to the supplementary crimes committed under the cloak of darkness by people in the darkened area, Leinster also provided graphic sociological comment. . . .[He] would use the detective and scientific invention both in and out of the science fiction magazines.
The template, if you will, for James Bond and others of his ilk was basically fashioned in the pulps of the 1920s:
The foregoing tales of Erle Stanley Gardner and Murray Leinster were actually popularizers and prototypes of a formula involving a criminal genius threaten-ing a city, country or planet with scientific horror and an official or specialized agent battling the menace.
Moskowitz wraps up his survey with three brilliant SF-tec stories that just about every science fiction reader should be aware of: Hal Clement's Needle (1949), Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1953), and . . .
. . . the most inspired of all. It was written by Isaac Asimov, who had previously built two reputations in science fiction, one with his robot stories and the three laws of robotics and the second with his Foundation series of the galactic empire. The Caves of Steel (1953) is the supreme masterpiece to date of the detective story in science fiction, so much so that it has received mention in at least one important book on the development of crime fiction.
So ends Moskowitz's overview of the science fiction-detective subgenre. In the fifty years since then a newer generation of writers and film makers have been mashing SF and tec fiction together, admittedly not always successfully, but often enough to tell us there's still a lot of life left in the science fictional detective after all.

- David H. Keller's output is well represented on Amazon (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE); Keller's non-SF detective story featuring the Taine character, "Hands of Doom" (1947), is available at Pulpgen (HERE).
- There's plenty of information about Sam Moskowitz on the Web: his New York Times obituary (HERE), Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), and the ISFDb (HERE).
- On (HERE) David Cranmer also acknowledges Asimov's contribution:
When trail-blazing editor John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction (eventually renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) boldly declared that mystery and science fiction genres were incompatible, Isaac Asimov disagreed. In response, Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel, successfully creating a futuristic whodunit and proving Campbell wrong. Today, it seems like a passé point that science fiction can be injected into any literary genre, but it took Asimov’s mid-twentieth century vision to help pave the way. — David Cranmer, "Eight Essen-tial Science Fiction Detective Mash-Ups" (2014)
Artwork by Frank Kelly Freas