Saturday, June 27, 2015

"There Was an Absolute Minimum of Motivation for Crime"

"Murder, 1990."
By C. B. Gilford (1920-2010).
Short story.
First appearance: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (AHMM), October 1960.
Reprinted in Best Detective Stories of the Year, 16th Series (1961), Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Keep You Spellbound (1976), The Best of Mystery (1980), Alfred Hitchcock's Book of Horror Stories: Book 9 (1989), and as "Murder 2090" in Dark Sins, Dark Dreams (1978).
Online HERE (pages 61-78).
Usually a name like "C. B. Gilford" conceals a female author, but in this case the "C. B." stands for "Charles Bernard," characterized as an "academic"; while he enjoyed a fruitful association with both Alfred Hitchcock's magazine and TV series (see the links below), Gilford also rates a listing in the Internet Science Fiction Database for his SF efforts, of which "Murder, 1990" is one.

In his introduction to the story in Best Detective Stories of the Year, Brett Halliday says:
Want a look into the future? Here it is, presented with such absolute conviction and realism that we feel the author is there, and that his manuscript must have come back to us by some weird manipulation of a Time Machine or some such.
My feeling after finishing this story was that the present isn't so bad after all.
You might feel that way, too.

It was small, light, and seemed ready to fall apart at his touch.
Trembling, but overwhelmed by curiosity, he lifted the cover and glanced at the fly leaf. The Logic of Murder he read. For a moment he experienced a dismal disappointment. The word "logic" had some meaning for him, though vague. The last word, "murder," was completely and totally mysterious. The book was useless if he knew absolutely nothing of its subject matter. But as he pondered it, he was not so sure. The book might teach him what "murder" was. And "murder" might be something vastly entertaining.
* * *
It would be very nice to share a double cubicle with someone, to have someone to talk to, really talk to, someone to whisper to, out of the reach of the microphones, someone with whom to discuss strange and fascinating and bizarre ideas such as murder, and what civilization must have been like when individuals dared to murder one another.
* * *
Paul realized that he lived in an ideal civilization, where there was an absolute minimum of motivation for crime. Except the one that he had found . . .
* * *
Possibly she imagined he was going to caress her, despite the fact that such things were strictly forbidden during working hours. Her chubby shoulders trembled expectantly, awaiting his touch. He plunged the knife in quickly.
- Gilford's TV contributions (6 times for Hitchcock) are listed and linked HERE, while his science fiction in notated HERE.

Category: Science fiction (future crime division)

"But You Have Had No Data To Go On"

"The Recrudescence of Sherlock Holmes."
By Frank Marshall White (?-?).
First appearance: Life, October 18, 1894.
Online HERE (2 pages, PDF).
Baker Street Blog caricature
A story proving that there really is a difference between being smart and being a smart aleck:
“What have I told you,” asked Holmes somewhat impatiently, “about deduction and analysis?”
Category: Sherlock Holmes spoofs (mildly amusing division)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

European Pulp Science Fiction

That indefatigable researcher Jess Nevins has published two complementary essays about pulp fiction from overseas ("overseas" of the United States and Great Britain, that is).

We tend to forget (or, more likely, we never knew) that pulp was a world-wide publishing phenomenon not confined to an Anglophone readership.

In his first essay, Nevins chronicles European SF pulps prior to 1914:
THE HISTORY of science fiction in America and Great Britain has been the subject of a number of popular and academic studies, and in general is well known, at least among science fiction fans. But the history of European science fiction, defined in this case as the countries of continental Europe, the Scandinavian countries, Russia, and Turkey, is less well-known. Less coverage still has been given to the science fiction pulps of Europe.
In Europe, pulps were called everything from "dime novels" to "story papers" to "gialli" to "heftromane." They can be distinguished from magazines by the quality of paper (poor), the level of pay for writers (worse), the number of articles or stories (fewer), and literary aspirations (none). Proto-pulps, in the form of pamphlets and chapbooks, were common by the 1550s, and the most popular printed matter in Britain, France, and Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries was pamphlet fiction, whether the penny novelettes of Britain, the Bibliothèque Bleue canards of France, or the Volksbüchlein of Germany. Long before magazines became common reading matter, proto-pulps were wide-spread and enjoyed.
There were numerous European science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels published in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, but the fantastic was never as popular in the proto-pulps as adventure and romance stories were. This did not change until the 1860s and 1870s, when writers like Jules Verne, the Frenchman Camille Flammarion, and the Hungarian Mór Jókai wrote best-selling works of science fiction. During these decades European readers began to read science fiction in pamphlet form thanks to imports and translations of American dime novels and British story papers. This influx of science fiction slowly began to create, in the public's mind, the idea that science fiction was a discrete genre of fiction. Of course, this conception was still vague, as the idea of literary genres at all was still only nebulously understood.  . . .
In his second essay, Nevins continues his history of European SF pulps through the end of World War Two. Political turmoil on the Continent inevitably shaped the course of fiction:
. . . [T]he rise in fascism in the German pulps made them less acceptable to foreign publishers. As the decade progressed German pulps became increasingly pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and anti-foreigner. Jörn Farrow changed from a straightforward science fiction pulp to one in which Germany's involvement in World War One was repeatedly justified and Jews were routinely blamed for German's defeat. By 1934 the most popular science fiction pulp in Germany was Paul Alfred Müller-Murnau's Sun Koh, Die Erbe von Atlantis (150 issues, 1933-1936), about a superhuman Aryan descendant of the Mayan kings and his involvement in the genocide of the lesser races.  . . .
It might surprise you to learn that a major producer of pulp fiction was Spain:
. . . It was Spain and not Germany which was the foremost producer of science fiction pulps during the 1930s. Even the caesura caused by the Spanish Civil War was only a three-year interruption. Few of the Spanish science fiction pulps had the longevity of their German counterparts; the longest-lasting of these Spanish science fiction pulps was José Canellas Casals and Francisco Darnis' Los Vampiros del Aire #1-45 (1933-1934), about the brothers Carlos and Marcos Bon, who put on costumes with mechanical wings and fight a gang of criminals with similar flying suits, as well as witches, ghosts, and werewolves. However, the most popular and longest-lasting Spanish pulp series of the 1930s, though a Western, had huge amounts of fantastic material.  . . .
Even after the war Spanish pulps didn't suffer:
. . . World War Two put an end to the pulp industry in most European countries and depressed it in the rest. The only exception was Spain, which as a non-combatant suffered the least of any European country. Correspondingly, the pulp industry in Spain flourished. While adventure, detective, and Western pulps remained roughly as popular as they were before the war, science fiction became more popular, with a larger number of science fiction pulps appearing than at any time since the start of the Spanish pulp industry in 1921.  . . .
- Essay 1: "An Introduction to Pulp Fiction in Europe Before 1914" is HERE.
- Essay 2: "Planetary Romance, Zombie Mentors, and The Rise of Fascism: European Pulp Fiction 1914-1945" is HERE.
- A Wikipedia article about Nevins is HERE.

Category: Science fiction with a pulpy European flavor

A Perfectly Realized Nightmare

"It's a Good Life."
The Twilight Zone (156 episodes, 1959-64).
Season 3, Episode 8. First broadcast: 3 November 1961.
Online HERE (24 minutes 55 seconds).
IMDb listing HEREFor sale HERE.
Director: James Sheldon. Writers: Rod Serling (1924-75), based on a story (online HERE) by Jerome Bixby (1923-98).

Cast: Billy Mumy (Anthony Fremont), John Larch (Anthony's father), Cloris Leachman (Anthony's mother), Don Keefer (Dan Hollis), Max Showalter (Pat Riley), Alice Frost (Aunt Amy), Jeanne Bates (Ethel Hollis), Lenore Kingston (Thelma Dunn), Tom Hatcher (Bill Soames), Rod Serling (host and narrator).
Tonight's story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a map of the United States, and there's a little town there called Peaksville. On a given morning not too long ago, the rest of the world disappeared and Peaksville was left all alone. Its inhabitants were never sure whether the world was destroyed and only Peaksville left untouched or whether the village had somehow been taken away. They were, on the other hand, sure of one thing: the cause. A monster had arrived in the village. Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines — because they displeased him — and he moved an entire community back into the dark ages — just by using his mind.
Now I'd like to introduce you to some of the people in Peaksville, Ohio. This is Mr. Fremont. It's in his farmhouse that The Monster resides. This is Mrs. Fremont. And this is Aunt Amy, who probably had more control over The Monster in the beginning than almost anyone. But one day she forgot. She began to sing aloud. Now, The Monster doesn't like singing, so his mind snapped at her, turned her into the smiling, vacant thing you're looking at now. She sings no more. And you'll note that the people in Peaksville, Ohio, have to smile. They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because once displeased, The Monster can wish them into a cornfield or change them into a grotesque, walking horror. This particular monster can read minds, you see. He knows every thought, he can feel every emotion.
Oh yes, I did forget something, didn't I? I forgot to introduce you to The Monster. This is The Monster [we see a little boy swinging on a gate]. His name is Anthony Fremont. He's six years old, with a cute little-boy face and blue, guileless eyes. But when those eyes look at you, you'd better start thinking happy thoughts, because the mind behind them is absolutely in charge. This is the Twilight Zone.
We used to think Rod Serling's introduction to "It's a Good Life" is too long and gives away too much from the start, but now we're not so sure. (During the long run of his series, Serling had a tendency, which he sometimes indulged, to be verbose and preachy—but he was also capable of affecting poetry.) It's hard to think how Serling's "set up" could be done differently or better. To start in medias res without this necessary information could have proved disorienting to the audience of that era.

Anyhow, for our money "It's a Good Life" just might be the finest horror story ever produced for television. There isn't a wasted word or gesture, the pacing is perfect, and the tension generated by all the actors is palpable. Everyone except the little monster conveys the smothered fear they're experiencing, the overwhelming need to run away from this living hell they're trapped in. Yes, TENSION and DREAD encapsulate the emotional states of the grownups, as they tiptoe around a living bomb with the full knowledge of what happens to anyone who crosses him: being wished away into the cornfield (it sounds so innocuous, doesn't it?).
Seeing adults who should be in charge abasing themselves before a child, feigning cheerfulness with as much earnestness as they can muster, being complaisant when their impulse is to take a stick or a bottle or something and beat this kid to death—the whole situation is a complete inversion of the normal order of things, and we're sure Bixby and Serling—being writers who strove to wring out of their characters as many emotional variances as possible—loved it.

For example:
The Monster: No kids came over to play today, not a single one, and I wanted someone to play with!
His Father: Well, Anthony, you remember what happened the last time some kids came over to play? The little Fredricks boy and his sister.
The Monster: I had a real good time.
Father: Oh, sure you did, you had a real good time, and it's good that you had a good time, it's real good. It's just that . . .
The Monster: It's just that what?
Father: Well, Anthony, you, uh . . . you wished them away into the cornfield, and their mommy and daddy got real upset.
The dreadful irony of what the father is saying — "it's good that you had a good time, it's real good" — isn't lost on the audience or the father, who must make murder seem like a good thing. GOOD—count how many times that word is used in the script, and think how often it's employed as a euphemism for EVIL.

Another instance: When the father, a farmer who makes his living off the land, looks out the window he almost loses his cool:
Father: It's snowing outside! Anthony, are you making it snow?
The Monster [nonchalantly]: Yes, I'm making it snow.
Father: Why, that'll ruin half the crops! You know that, don't you, half the crops! That's what that . . . [His wife hurries to his side and through small, barely perceptible gestures urges him to calm down, which he does] But it's good you're making it snow. It's real good. And tomorrow's going to be a good day too.
Only it isn't.

Just 25 minutes long, "It's a Good Life" will have you as tied up in knots as the characters on the screen. This show proves that Hollywood is—or at least was—capable of producing engrossing entertainment without bludgeoning the viewer with a message.
But Hollywood is also capable of producing gross "entertainment." A feature-length film, Twilight Zone: The Movie, was released (or maybe it escaped) in 1983, in which they unsuccessfully attempted to remake "It's a Good Life" with major annoying changes in the plot—and in color. They shouldn't have bothered.

And they shouldn't have bothered with a "sequel" of sorts, either, in the reprised Twilight Zone episode "It's Still a Good Life" (2003), in which The Monster has a daughter.

Rod Serling said that when he looked back over his series (156 shows in all), about one third of the stories were bad, a third were only fair—but a third of them were something to be proud of. In our estimation, "It's a Good Life" is definitely one of those he should have been proud of.

Category: Science fiction (tales of terror department)

"When the Magic Goes Away, What Can Replace It?"

By Lars Walker (b. 1950).
Amazon Kindle Edition.
2012. 264 pages.
For sale HERE.
In all of his novels, Lars Walker has managed to combine realism with wild fantasy, producing a fascinating hybrid genre that makes for compelling reading. As an artist, he has arrived, and he just keeps getting better and better.

In Troll Valley, as in all of his books, Walker delves into the darker recesses of the human condition, yet manages to be entertaining—even humorous—without being depressing, ranging from hilarity to pathos, which is no small feat for any writer.

His main character and narrator, Christian Anderson, is a boy struggling to become a man who was born with a major birth defect—a withered arm—but is profoundly crippled more in spirit than body.

Another sure thing about a Lars Walker book: its unpredictability. Just when you think it will go one way, Walker surprises you with unexpected developments.

For instance, consider the faltering grip of the fairy folk indigenous to Christian's ancestral homeland, Norway, on the imaginations and spiritual lives of the settlers in the New World.

For Christian, the spirits just beyond man's ken are a day-to-day reality embodied—if that's the right word—in his fairy godmother. Yes, an honest-to-goodness fairy godmother (and you might as well forget everything you think you know about fairy godmothers), as well as the "red caps" who materialize when he is frightened or angry; their job is to exact a terrifying penalty on humans who would harm him.

As well-protected as he is from others, however, Christian has a greater enemy: himself. Before Troll Valley ends, he will say and do things that threaten to destroy him and the love he craves.

It might be inadvisable to call Troll Valley a roman à clef, but there certainly is a wealth of background to life on the Great Plains of the early 20th century in the grand tradition of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather. Toss in hints of "The Ransom of Red Chief," The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and It's a Wonderful Life and you'll have an idea of how diverse Troll Valley is. At the risk of sounding trite, it would make a great movie.

And the embedded bedtime story of Snow-White-Rose-Red is laugh-out-loud hilarious; all by itself it makes the book worth reading.

You'll love your stay in Troll Valley.

Exceptional passages:
. . . It was bone-aching cold, cold out of a sky clear as a dead man’s mind, black with the infinite blackness of space, so that the stars and the moon stung your eyes looking at them, just as the wind stung your cheeks and clawed at the space between mitten and sleeve-end. It was a wind to knock you over, out of the arctic itself, whipping great white snakes off the shoulders of the snowdrifts to curl around the farmyard.  . . .
. . . “If only you could eat beauty. My home was a rocky little island, not much to speak of, but most of Norway is so beautiful you could cry. Fjords a thousand feet deep and smooth as a mirror, and the mountains walling them in a thousand feet high, with ribbons of bridal veil waterfalls plunging down their sides, and their tops hidden in the clouds. I think Heaven will be like that—but in Heaven we will not want bread.”
- Lars Walker's webpage is HERE, while a weblog he contributes to is HERE.

Category: Historical fantasy

Monday, June 22, 2015

"You Must Conform!" - From "The Beautiful People" to "Number 12 Looks Just Like You"

"Once dispirited, the individual can be molded by the state with endless social experiments and lifestyle calibrations." — Mark Levin
The theme of "man against society" is an ancient one. Countless works of fiction, many of them in the science fiction genre, have explored it (e.g., A Clockwork Orange, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World).

A woman or a man finds himself at odds with his society. She doesn't "fit in." Or perhaps society wants to "mold" him into its image. The sources of conflict are as varied as life itself, but one common problem in these stories is when the State threatens to become "god"—essentially, man has come to exist for the sake of society rather than the opposite.

Such an inversion of the natural order inevitably leads to conflict—and conflict is the beating heart of any story.

(Note: It's best if you read the story first and then view the video.)


"The Beautiful People."
By Charles Beaumont (1929-67).
First appearance: Worlds of If Science Fiction, September 1952.
Online HERE.

Major characters:
Mary Cuberle — Reluctant
Mrs. Zena Cuberle — Perfect
Doctor Hortel — Baffled
Daddy and Grandpa — Wise
Mr. Willmes — Sympathetic

The story's opening plants us firmly in the future (or what was assumed to be the future in the early '50s):
MARY sat quietly and watched the handsome man's legs blown off; watched further as the great ship began to crumple and break into small pieces in the middle of the blazing night. She fidgeted slightly as the men and the parts of the men came floating dreamily through the wreckage out into the awful silence. And when the meteorite shower came upon the men, gouging holes through everything, tearing flesh and ripping bones, Mary closed her eyes.
Mrs. Cuberle glanced up from her magazine.
"Do we have to wait much longer?"
"I don't think so. Why?"
Mary said nothing but looked at the moving wall.
"Oh, that." Mrs. Cuberle laughed and shook her head. "That tired old thing. Read a magazine, Mary, like I'm doing. We've all seen that a million times."
"Does it have to be on, Mother?"
"Well, nobody seems to be watching. I don't think the doctor would mind if I switched it off."
Mrs. Cuberle rose from the couch and walked to the wall. She depressed a little button and the life went from the wall, flickering and glowing.
Mrs. Cuberle is very worried about her daughter and has brought her to a psychiatrist.
Mary has started doing things her society has long since "outgrown": reading books instead of tapes; sleeping, which has been abolished by this time; eating and chewing food; and most worrisome of all, refusing to undergo the Transformation.  . . .

The Transformation promises perfection and contentment:
A picture of Mother sat upon the dresser and Mary considered this now. Looked for a long time at the slender, feminine neck. The golden skin, smooth and without blemish, without wrinkles and without age. The dark brown eyes and the thin tapers of eyebrows, the long black lashes, set evenly, so that each half of the face corresponded precisely. The half-parted-mouth, a violet tint against the gold, the white, white teeth, even, sparkling.
Mother. Beautiful. Transformed Mother.
And then un-Transformed Mary regards herself in a mirror:
The image of a rather chubby girl, without lines of rhythm or grace, without perfection. Splotchy skin full of little holes, puffs in the cheeks, red eruptions on the forehead. Perspiration, shapeless hair flowing onto shapeless shoulders down a shapeless body. Like all of them, before the Transformation.
Mrs. Cuberle, in a revealing outburst that confirms her essential narcissism, is horrified that everyone might think she's "the mother of an idiot." It's clear she doesn't really love her daughter.
For Mary, refusing to go along will prove costly and disruptive. Since no one else has ever refused the Transformation, the rigid society into which Mary has been born is unprepared for her individuality, precipitating a social crisis. Without intending to, she has become a threat to the status quo.

And there seems to be no hope of finding anyone who will help her.


"Number 12 Looks Just Like You."
The Twilight Zone (156 episodes, 1959-64).
Season 5, Episode 17. First broadcast: 24 January 1964.
IMDb listing HERE.
Video: 25 minutes 7 seconds.
Online (we hope) HERE.

Director — Abner Biberman.
Writers — Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin.
Rod Serling — Series creator.

Episode cast:
Collin Wilcox Paxton — Marilyn Cuberle (as Collin Wilcox).
Richard Long — Uncle Rick / Dr. Rex / Professor Sigmund Friend.
Pamela Austin — Valerie / Marilyn (as Pam Austin).
Suzy Parker — Lana Cuberle / Simmons / Grace / Doe / Jane / #12.
Rod Serling — Narrator / Himself - Host.

The Twilight Zone adaptation of "The Beautiful People" keeps the basic theme of the non-conformist individual striving against an all-powerful, hive-mind society but makes substantial changes in characterization and, especially, the serious tone of the short story.
Into the plotline a satirical tone has insinuated itself, one that threatens to undermine the theme. (A glance at the expanded character list by itself should give you an inkling.) You can decide if it does.
As a result of these changes, you might be reminded more of Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Consequently, there's a danger in this version that the viewer might lose sight of how monstrous the Transformation is, since it's used to secure the smothering grip the State exerts on its subjects (not "citizens"); but the producers seem to be hoping that percipient viewers would nevertheless "get it."
Rod Serling's opening narration—slyly sidestepping the story's actual theme—sets it up:
Given the chance, what young girl wouldn't happily exchange a plain face for a lovely one? What girl could refuse the opportunity to be beautiful? For want of a better estimate, let's call it the year 2000. At any rate, imagine a time in the future where science has developed a means of giving everyone the face and body he dreams of. It may not happen tomorrow, but it happens now in the Twilight Zone.
Only for Marilyn, it's not something she dreams of—it's a nightmare.

Category: Science fiction (sociological variety)

Friday, June 19, 2015

True Crime Roundup VIII

Crime doesn't pay, but that won't stop some people.

(1) "Saving Youth From Heroin and Crime" (1924) (2 pages):
     Apparently there has always been a correlation between drug addiction and criminal activity:
. . . In addition to the passage of the anti-heroin bill, which prohibits the importation, manufacture, transportation or use of the drug in the United States, it is further recommended by the Association that Congress send circulars on the general facts of addiction to schools, colleges and voters, and thus reach the 23,000,000 young people in the nation's educational institutions before the school year is ended.  . . .
"Heroin appeared in America only ten years ago. Its spread to the present proportions in so short a time is appalling and indicates new factors in the problem of addiction. These facts, defined and pointed out by the Association, are: Every heroin addict, because of the drug's action on his brain, has a mania to spread his addiction to others; the drug is four times as powerful as morphin and comes in the convenient deceptive form of a white powder, called 'snow,' which is generally 'whiffed' into the nostrils. One 'snow party' a day for a week makes a youth an addict."  . . .
(2) "A Congressman Sentenced to Prison" (1924) (1 page):
     Somebody has to be the first:
". . . The important fact is that no man in this country, no matter how high and powerful his official position, is above the law or beyond its punishments."  . . .
     According to Wikipedia (HERE):
. . . [Representative Langley, in office since 1907] resigned [from Congress] in January 11, 1926, after being convicted of illegally selling alcohol. Langley had deposited $115,000 in his bank account over a three-year period despite earning only $7,500 a year as a congressman. He had arranged for "medicinal" alcohol to be released to New York-based bootleggers during prohibition. He also tried to bribe a Prohibition officer. His wife Katherine, then ran for his seat and won in the next election, loudly declaring that her husband had been the victim of a conspiracy. She also won the next election as well.  . . .
(3) "Outwitting the Safe-Breaker" (1924) (1 page):
     Is any safe really safe?
. . . "Time is the most important factor making for the success or failure of the safe-breaker when attacking a bank vault. Manufacturers of burglar-proof vaults, therefore, are concerned with constructing a mechanism which will require a maximum amount of time to destroy."  . . .
See the Wikipedia article HERE for more about bank vaults.
(4) "Evidence Gathered by Suction" (1924) (¼ of a page):
     It's probably not what you might think:
[Full article] Microscopic examination of the dirt and dust upon the clothing of suspects is a new scheme of the French police to catch criminals, we learn from Science Service's Daily Science News Bulletin (Washington):
"After cross-examination, the suspects are stript of their clothing, whose superficial dust is first examined under a strong microscope. A vacuum-cleaner is next applied to draw out other dirt into a pan. In some instances a more thorough process, in which heating figures, is used to separate all particles of foreign matter. From the dirt thus secured the detectives determine whether the suspect has been telling the truth. One murderer tried to prove an alibi by saying that he had slept in an open field the night of the crime. Microscopic examination of his clothing showed that he had slept in a quarry. An unsuspected carpenter was connected with a murder by means of sawdust found on a piece of overall which the victim had torn from his assailant and which was found at the scene of the crime. The chief value of the new plan has been in breaking down the bravado of criminals. They frequently confess when shown that their first stories were lies."
(5) "Scientific Bandits Who Land in Jail" (1924) (2 pages):
     The Newton Gang strikes again:
THE EXPLOITS OF JESSE JAMES as a train-robber in Missouri come to mind as one reads of "the most daring train robbery in railroad history"—the hold-up near Chicago of a solid mail and express train and the theft of some forty pouches of registered mail, said to contain between $1,000,000 and $3,000,000.
Wearing gas-masks, and equipped with an airplane and four automobiles; armed with gas-bombs, nitro-glycerin, dynamite, sawed-off shotguns, and automatic pistols, according to the story told the St. Paul Dispatch by the mail clerks as they pulled into the station with shattered windows and bullet-marked cars, ten or a dozen bandits apparently terrorized seventy or more armed guards and mail clerks aboard the train and accomplished their purpose within ten minutes.
They forced their way into the barricaded cars by breaking the windows with rocks, and then threw in vials of gas, which broke as they landed upon the floor. The clerks and guards, nearly overcome by the fumes, were forced to open the doors. The leader then donned a gas-mask, placed another on the chief mail clerk, and forced him, at the point of a gun, to point out the valuable mail-sacks, which were thrown into the waiting automobiles. A few hours later two of the machines, showing hard usage, were found abandoned along the highway, and by daylight the next morning a hundred motorcycle policemen and nearly a thousand government and railroad detectives, deputy sheriffs, and special officers were on the bandits' trail.  . . .
From the Wikipedia article about the Newton Gang (HERE):
The Newton Gang (ca. 1919 through 1924) was an outlaw gang of the early 20th century, and the most successful train robbers and bank robbers in history. From 1919 through 1924 the gang robbed dozens of banks, claiming a number of eighty-seven banks (unconfirmed) and six trains (confirmed). According to Willis Newton, the brothers "took in more money than the Dalton Gang, Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch and the James-Younger Gang combined." Also according to their own claims, they never killed anyone. It's true they were never charged with any death or injuries associated with their robberies, although one daylight robbery in Toronto, Canada proved nearly fatal for one bank messenger. Notable enough for the 1924 train robbery near Rondout, Illinois (the world's largest at the time), the brothers gained a second round of fame in retirement, when they participated in a 1975 documentary film, and then a more in-depth oral history project that eventually was published in book form, possibly one of the clearest records of a criminal career of the period, as told by the participants. This second round of fame led to a feature film [The Newton Boys] being produced by a major Hollywood studio, after the death of the last surviving brother.  . . .
- You can find True Crime VII HERE.

Category: True crime

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Are You in the Nineteenth Century?"

"The Chronic Argonauts."
By H. G. Wells (1866-1946).
Short story.
First publication: The Science Schools Journal (1888).
Online HERE.
"The Chronic Argonauts" was Wells's first foray into time travel fiction and is very different from his famous The Time Machine (1895):
. . . This brief story begins with a third-person account of the arrival of a mysterious inventor to the peaceful Welsh town of Llyddwdd. Dr. Moses Nebogipfel takes up residence in a house sorely neglected after the deaths of its former inhabitants.
The main bulk of the story concerns the apprehension of the simple rural folk who eventually storm the inventor's "devilish" workshop in an effort to repay supposed witchery. Nebogipfel escapes with one other person—the sympa-thetic Reverend Elijah Ulysses Cook—in what is later revealed to be a time machine.
The next part picks up with an unnamed "Author" character discovering the dazed Reverend Cook returned from unbelievable exploits after having been missing for three weeks. The remainder of the story is the Reverend's short retelling (again in the third-person) of the events that took place that night and the revelation that Nebogipfel is [SPOILERS]. (From a Wikipedia article HERE, since modified)
- A graphic novel version of "The Chronic Argonauts" is discussed in detail HERE, from which came the illustrations accompanying this posting.
- The Time Machine recently got our attention HERE.

Category: Science fiction (time travel division)

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Tongue-in-Cheek Assessment of THE BIG BOW MYSTERY by the Author Himself

Never let it be said that Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) suffered from an excess of modesty. In his introduction to The Big Bow Mystery (1892), Zangwill assessed his own artistic achievement. (Note: Comments in [brackets] are our own gratuitous editorial additions.)
While Zangwill is being playful, through all the facetiousness he does offer sound advice to the would-be mystery fictioneer:
As this little book was written some four years ago, I feel able to review it without prejudice. [Sure you do.]
A new book just hot from the brain is naturally apt to appear faulty to its begetter, but an old book has got into the proper perspective and may be praised by him without fear or favor. [A bit presumptuous, don't you think?]
"The Big Bow Mystery" seems to me an excellent murder story, as murder stories go, for, while as sensational as the most of them, it contains more humor and character creation than the best. ["He who speaks without modesty will find it difficult to make his words good." — Confucius]
Indeed, the humor is too abundant. Mysteries should be sedate and sober. There should be a pervasive atmosphere of horror and awe such as Poe manages to create. Humor is out of tone; it would be more artistic to preserve a somber note throughout. [When you have read The Big Bow Mystery, you'll see how facetious Zangwill is being here.]
But I was a realist in those days, and in real life mysteries occur to real persons with their individual humors, and mysterious circumstances are apt to be complicated by comic.
The indispensable condition of a good mystery is that it should be able and unable to be solved by the reader, and that the writer's solution should satisfy.
Many a mystery runs on breathlessly enough till the dénouement is reached, only to leave the reader with the sense of having been robbed of his breath under false pretenses.
And not only must the solution be adequate, but all its data must be given in the body of the story.
The author must not suddenly spring a new person or a new circumstance upon his reader at the end. Thus, if a friend were to ask me to guess who dined with him yesterday, it would be fatuous if he had in mind somebody of whom he knew I had never heard.
One would have imagined that nobody could take this seriously, for it is obvious that the mystery-story is just the one species of story that can not be told impromptu or altered at the last moment, seeing that it demands the most careful piecing together and the most elaborate dove-tailing.
Nevertheless, if you cast your joke upon the waters, you shall find it no joke after many days. This is what I read in the Lyttelton Times, New Zealand: "The chain of circumstantial evidence seems fairly irrefragable. From all accounts, Mr. Zangwill himself was puzzled, after carefully forging every link, how to break it. The method ultimately adopted I consider more ingenious than convincing." After that I made up my mind never to joke again, but this good intention now helps to pave the beaten path.
- You can find The Big Bow Mystery online HERE.
- The GAD Wiki reviews of Big Bow are HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism (from a detective fiction author)

A Contemporary Reaction to THE TIME MACHINE

"In A.D. 802,701."
By Richard Holt Hutton (1826-97).
The Spectator, July 13, 1895.

The reviewer, Richard Holt Hutton, was, according to Wikipedia (HERE), the son of a Unitarian minister who adhered to that religion until the last forty-four years of his life.

In his latter days, Hutton's "innovations and unconventional views about stereotyped Unitarian doctrines caused alarm" among his friends. His theological views "gradually came closer to those of the Church of England, which he ultimately joined. He brought to his study of theology a spirituality of outlook and an aptitude for metaphysical inquiry and exposition which made his writings more attractive."

When in 1861 he became joint editor and part owner of The Spectator, Hutton "took charge of the literary side of the paper, and gradually his own articles became one of the best-known features of serious and thoughtful English journalism. The Spectator, which gradually became a prosperous property, was an outlet for his views, particularly on literary, religious, and philosophical subjects, in opposition to the agnostic and rationalistic opinions then current in intellectual circles, as popularized by T. H. Huxley."
Small wonder, then, that when Hutton encountered The Time Machine (1895) written by that ardently opinionated agnostic rationalist Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), he was less than enthusiastic about the bleak determinism which the novel evinces:
Mr. H. G. Wells has written a very clever story as to the condition of this planet in the year 802,701 A.D., though the two letters A.D. appear to have lost their meaning in that distant date, as indeed they have lost their meaning for not a few even in the comparatively early date at which we all live.
The story is one based on that rather favourite speculation of modern metaphysicians which supposes time to be at once the most important of the conditions of organic evolution, and the most misleading of subjective illusions.
It is, we are told, by the efflux of time that all the modifications of species arise on the one hand, and yet Time is so purely subjective a mode of thought, that a man of searching intellect is supposed to be able to devise the means of travelling in time as well as in space, and visiting, so as to be contemporary with, any age of the world, past or future, so as to become as it were a true "pilgrim of eternity."
This is the dream on which Mr. H. G. Wells has built up his amusing story of "The Time Machine."
A speculative mechanician is supposed to have discovered that the "fourth dimension," concerning which mathematicians have speculated, is Time, and that with a little ingenuity a man may travel in Time  as well as in Space.
The Time-traveller of this story invents some hocus-pocus of a machine by the help of which all that belongs or is affixed to that machine may pass into the Future by pressing down one lever, and into the Past by pressing down another.
In other words, he can make himself at home with the society of hundreds of thousands of centuries hence, or with the chaos of hundreds of thousands of centuries past, at his pleasure.
As a matter of choice, the novelist very judiciously chooses the Future only in which to disport himself.
And as we have no means of testing his conceptions of the Future, he is of course at liberty to imagine what he pleases.
And he is rather ingenious in his choice of what to imagine.
Mr. Wells supposes his Time-traveller to travel forward from A.D. 1895 to A.D. 802,701, and to make acquaintance with the people inhabiting the valley of the Thames (which has, of course, somewhat changed its channel) at that date.
He finds a race of pretty and gentle creatures of silken organisations, as it were, and no particular interests or aims, except the love of amusement, inhabiting the surface of the earth, almost all evil passions dead, almost all natural or physical evils overcome, with a serener atmosphere, a brighter sun, lovelier flowers and fruits, no dangerous animals or poisonous vegetables, no angry passions, or tumultuous and grasping selfishness, and only one object of fear.
While the race of the surface of the earth has improved away all its dangers and embarrassments (including, apparently, every trace of a religion), the race of the underworld,—the race which has originally sprung from the mining population,—has developed a great dread of light, and a power of vision which can work and carry on all its great engineering operations with a minimum of light.
At the same time, by inheriting a state of servitude it has also inherited a cruel contempt for its former masters, who can now resist its attacks only by congregating in crowds during the hours of darkness, for in the daylight, or even in the bright moonlight, they are safe from the attacks of their former serfs.  . . .
We may expect with the utmost confidence that if the earth is still in existence in the year 802,701 A.D., either the A.D. will mean a great deal more than it means now, or else its inhabitants will be neither Eloi nor Morlocks.
For in that case evil passions will by that time have led to the extinction of races spurred and pricked on by conscience and yet so frivolous or so malignant.
Yet Mr. Wells's fanciful and lively dream is well worth reading, if only because it will draw attention to the great moral and religious factors in human nature which he appears to ignore.
- You can purchase Hutton's Aspects of Religious and Scientific Thought HERE, or save a lot of money and read it online HERE.
- The Norton Critical Edition of The Time Machine is for sale HERE.
- Last year we discussed some of H. G. Wells's works HERE.

Category: Science fiction criticism

"I Love Mystery Novels and I've Tried to Write Them"

Curt Evans has posted on his The Passing Tramp weblog (HERE) about some of John Updike's (1932-2009) earliest reading experiences and provided a helpful link to a 2004 interview (HERE) Updike gave to The Academy of Achievement:
ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT: You've said that you read a lot on the farm.
JOHN UPDIKE: Yes, of course. I had read somewhat before. I was an only child after all and only children tend to read.
My mother was a keen reader. My grandfather was a Bible and newspaper reader, so I saw a lot of reading around me. It's a world that a child can control.
There were things called Big Little Books then, which were essentially bound comic strips with one panel opposite a page of text, and it was an easy way to read, so I read a lot of those.
Then I graduated to mystery novels, some science fiction, the New Yorker humor.
He may have been a farm kid, but Updike's reading wasn't confined exclusively to The Old Farmer's Almanac:
ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT: Who were your favorite authors?
UPDIKE: I loved Agatha Christie, of course. And also, an American team called Ellery Queen. I read a lot of Ellery Queen. Erle Stanley Gardner. I must have read 40 books by Erle Stanley Gardner before I was 15 or so.
So, I got the reading habit, and I slightly branched out, you know, and challenged myself.
I remember at the age of 15 going into the library and pulling down The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot and reading it because I had heard that this was a modern masterpiece.
So, it was random reading, but maybe that's the best kind in a way. It's not forced on you and you get these glimpses, you know, of a wonderful world of books.
In Reading [Pennsylvania] there was a lovely Carnegie-endowed library with walls of books, and I remember I read through a whole shelf of P. G. Wodehouse.
Again my taste was to humor, I think, and it's odd that I didn't become a humorist really, although — just some humor perhaps in my work — but my first ambition as a writer was to become a humorous writer, to be like Thurber and Benchley and the lighter E. B. White, you know, to make people laugh. I thought that was a harmless thing to do. A thing that society never could have too much of, laughter.
Neverthless, Updike's fiction can be classed as realism — or as much realism as one should look for in fiction:
ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT: It's striking that the books you first gravitated to were mysteries and crime stories, and yet the books that you became well-known for are about the everyday life of ordinary people in ordinary places.
UPDIKE: It is odd. I love mystery novels and I've tried to write them.
When I was in my teens I began to write a mystery novel and tried to figure out how to plot it. You sort of plot it backwards, you know. You know who did it and then you try to hide that, and I couldn't really do it. I'm not saying I couldn't do it if a gun was put to my head, but it felt unnatural and felt like a very minor kind of witnessing.
In other words, I was willing to be entertained by others, but I didn't want to write entertainments myself. I wanted to write books that told everything I knew, that were fully about life in my tame band of it.
So quite early I began to try to become a serious writer.
It's a little puzzling. I've written some science fiction. That may not be well-known, but a couple of my novels are located in a hypothetical future.
There is something about it that frees you up in a way. Your attempt is always to write about the world you know, but also to somehow get out of it, if only by a little jump or a trick. Something must be different so that your imagination is really engaged. You're not just spilling your life, but you're to some extent inventing another life.
ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT: A lot of us readers feel honored by your paying so much attention to the likes of us, not great adventures but everyday people.
UPDIKE: Well, in a democracy in the 20th and 21st Century, if you can't base your fiction upon ordinary people and the issues that engage them, then you are reduced to writing about spectacular unreal people. You know, James Bond or something, and you cook up adventures.
The trick about fiction, as I see it, is to make an unadventurous circumstance seem adventurous, to make it excite the reader, either with its truth or with the fact that there's always a little more that goes on, and there's multiple levels of reality.
As we walk through even a boring day, we see an awful lot and feel an awful lot. To try to say some of that seems more worthy than cooking up thrillers.
. . . which is debatable, to say the least, but, agree or disagree, you can purchase Updike's nonfiction collection Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism (best-selling mainstream author division)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"He Had Decided That There Was Only One Possible Way in Which He Could Kill Vanderman and Get Away with It"

"Private Eye."
By Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner, 1915-58, and possibly C. L. Moore, 1911-87).
First published in Astounding, January 1949.
Online HERE.
One of many anthologies containing "Private Eye"
For better or worse, from childhood most of us are taught that God is always watching us — kindly parents assuring their children He’s watching out for us, indifferent parents scaring the bejabbers out of their kids with horror tales of what happens to willful children who refuse to eat their spinach.

One can only speculate how Henry Kuttner might have been terrorized in his infancy by the latter image of a vengeful deity — but like all good artists, he still managed to transmute submerged personal experience into public statement.

Kuttner’s prophetic novelette “Private Eye” (1949), in its own sly way, is provocative on several levels, touching on religion, social conformity, sexuality, hypocrisy, criminality, and the not always desirable impact of technology.

In an unspecified but not-too-distant future, the past is an open book and the Eye is always looking over your shoulder:
He had decided that there was only one possible way in which he could kill Vanderman and get away with it. He couldn’t conceal the deed itself or the actions leading up to it, or any written or spoken word. All he could hide were his own thoughts. And, without otherwise betraying himself, he’d have to kill Vanderman so that his act would appear justified, which meant covering his tracks for yesterday as well as for tomorrow and tomorrow.  . . . Going off to buy a gun, he felt uncomfortable, as though that prescient Eye, years in the future, could with a wink summon the police. But it was separated from him by a barrier of time that only the natural processes could shorten. And, in fact, it had been watching him since his birth. You could look at it that way . . .
He could defy it. The Eye couldn’t read thoughts. He bought the gun and lay in wait for Vanderman in a dark alley. But first he got thoroughly drunk. Drunk enough to satisfy the Eye.
Kuttner has gone Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) one better. In Bester’s dystopic future, telepathy, while uncommon, is possible but can be thwarted, as can Orwell’s omnipresent telescreens. In Kuttner’s world, nothing anyone has ever experienced is beyond the Eye, presenting a real problem for somebody contemplat-ing murder and hoping to get away with it.

“Private Eye” isn’t a whodunit; we’re inside the would-be killer’s mind all the way. As Kuttner notes in the story, it boils down to a case of “Actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea” versus “Acta exteriora indicant interiora secreta.” In such a society, with “God” constantly at one’s elbow — and with everybody acutely aware of that fact — crime has fallen to unprecedentedly low levels, and no one ever gets away with it.

From the passage above, the reader might think the murderer intends to shoot his victim, but he’s much more clever than that:
“Private Eye” by Henry Kuttner, writing as Lewis Padgett, dramatized for BBC Television as ‘The Eye,’ envisions a murder in a society where time-viewing makes it virtually impossible to commit one and escape punishment, but also which allows pleas of temporary insanity and self-defense.
The protagonist instead schemes to get close enough to the victim, who has married the woman he thought he loved, that he can provoke an attack by the victim and kill him in self-defense. The murder weapon is an antique scalpel used as a letter opener, whose presence between them is carefully orchestrated by the murderer. — "Time Viewer" (HERE) on Wikipedia (and, in case you’re wondering, evidently the BBC wiped ‘The Eye’, the only known filmed version of this story, to reuse the videotape).
Clearly, “Private Eye” is more than just crime fiction:
[It] is psychological science fiction at its best.
In a hypothetical future world, law enforcement institutions have developed the technological means to play back any event from the past, and thus ascertain the ‘true’ nature of any crime committed by anyone anywhere.
The main character of the story is a person raised by an authoritarian ‘fire and brimstone’ father who instills the fear of God into his son. The son as an adult attempts to plan out and commit the perfect crime, an act of vengeful murder, knowing full well that everything he does can be watched in retrospect afterwards by the law.
In a world of omniscient surveillance — both by God and concretely embodied and represented in the police of this futurist world — this man carries out the perfect crime. “Private Eye” examines the psychological repercussions of advancing technology and draws interesting parallels between the potential power of such technologies and traditional ideas about a judgmental, omniscient God contained in many of our religious belief systems. — Tom Lombardo, “Science Fiction As the Mythology of the Future” (online HERE)
- "Private Eye" has been anthologized quite a few times; see HERE.

Category: Crime fiction (SF variety)