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)

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