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

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