Friday, February 19, 2016

Four Dr. Feather Mysteries

Dr. Feather was a series character creation of Ray Cummings, who is most famous for his science fiction, although he did dabble in pulp crime fiction. It looks as if Cummings produced at least 21 stories featuring Dr. Feather from 1936 to 1945 (see "Resources" below), four of which have been posted at that marvelous web archive PulpGen. If we were to categorize him, Dr. Feather would fit, along with other sleuths like Dr. Thorndyke, Luther Trant, and Craig Kennedy, into the "scientific detective" school, about which Mike Grost has a thorough discussion on his website HERE.

Comments: The usual format in these stories involves first, the crime, then the call for Dr. Feather, who examines the crime scene, turning up at least one crucial clue, the significance of which he coyly doesn't reveal until the end, and then only after he has set a trap and caught the malefactor. Not fair play, by any means.

Principal characters:
~ Dr. Feather: "Just a Ph.D." whose "primary interest is crime detection"; always described as "little" (but agile) with a "shaggy mane of iron-gray hair," given to saying things like "Dear me," "My goodness," and "Good gracious":
To anyone not knowing the famous criminologist intimately, he would have seemed a fussy little man, impractical, genial, anxious to please everyone. But his alert birdlike gaze was missing nothing of the scene around him.
~ Kit: His "small, dark-haired" (sometimes "dark little") feline "young daughter" who moves "like a shadow" and drives her father's big limousine ("which in effect was a traveling laboratory") and, when necessary, acts as his "muscle."

"A Shot in the Dark."
Dr. Feather #3.
By Ray Cummings (1887-1957).
First appearance: Popular Detective, September 1936.
Short short story (7 pages).
Parental caution: Strong language.
"An Ingenious Detective Finds the Fatal Chord in a Fugue of Death!"
An elderly musician is murdered, the instrument of death is missing, and Sergeant Blaine is all at sea:
. . . In a deep chair, just about in the center of the room and facing the hall door, the body lay sprawled—Antoine Giorni, frail old man with a leonine head of longish, shaggy white hair. The head sagged; the hands dangled over the chair arms. On the ruffled white shirt front, under the long flowing black tie a grue-some crimson stain marked where the bullet had gone.
". . . We got four suspects—two young men an’ two young women [says the detective]. They was paired off when the shot was fired. Damn queer layout, Dr. Feather. Looks to me like one couple is innocent an’ the other is lyin’ its head off. But I’ll be dogged if I can figure out which is which."
Eventually, though, Dr. Feather figures out which is which by making a note-worthy discovery: "Science is a wonderful thing, isn't it?"

"Murder in the Fog."
Dr. Feather #14.
By Ray Cummings (1887-1957).
First appearance: Popular Detective, December 1937.
Short short story (7 pages).
"Dr. Feather Tries to Prove You Can 'Set a Thief to Catch a Thief'"
In the murky fog clinging to a dead calm lake at night, two boats are making their way to the far shore when:
. . . from out of the fog, silent, invisible death struck suddenly! There was nothing to see; nothing to hear. But abruptly Dr. Hollis Hotchkiss sagged in the bow of the launch. There was just a little thud as his body tumbled forward and hit the cross seat.
He was dead with a bullet in his brain!
Simply because he was the nearest one to Dr. Hotchkiss, suspicion immediately falls on his young nephew, Irving, who desperately insists he didn't see or hear anything. Dr. Feather knows the young man is innocent, but proving it will require applying some high-tech to the case, in this instance a "small but elaborate piece of apparatus" using "a high-powered battery, with transformer, vacuum tubes and a small, hooded fluoroscope mirror with an intricate range-finding mechanism"—just the thing, don't you know, for catching an invisible killer who hides in the dark and the fog . . .

"The Dead Man Laughs."
Dr. Feather #15.
By Ray Cummings (1887-1957).
First appearance: Popular Detective, January 1938.
Short short story (6 pages).
"The Dead Man Laughs—as a Scientific Sleuth Tackles the Riddle of A Mysterious Fire!"
When an apartment house catches fire, Dr. Feather gets involved because one of the tenants has sent the police a warning note saying that if he were to die it would be at the hands of his grandson. Not long afterwards:
The dead man lay in the bed—a wizened old man, with the covers almost com-pletely enveloping him. His glazed eyes stared unseeingly. But on his face was a queer grimace—with his lips parted as though he had died upon the brink of a laugh!
And there was not a mark of violence on the body! No wound. No evidence of poison. The old man, who had locked himself in the bedroom, seemingly had simply died, awake in his bed! And died, about to laugh!
Bizarre, certainly, but not as simple as it seems; after Dr. Feather has a chance to check out the crime scene, he can confidently tell Kit "this is a mighty clever murder":
". . . here was a dead man, without any sign of poisonous gas in him—an autop-sy wouldn’t show a thing. And the murderer tried to burn down this house and all this evidence."
To his dismay, the killer learns a valuable lesson in hygiene: never clean your fingernails too thoroughly.

"Clue in Crimson."
Dr. Feather #17.
By Ray Cummings (1887-1957).
First appearance: Crack Detective, September 1943.
Short short story (7 pages).
"A tiny spot of blood was the only positive clue to the identity of Clark Douglas' murderer—but Dr. Feather knew how to make that bloodspot talk!"
Willow Grove's "somnolent telephone operator" is "startled by a call for help—a choking cry coming from the home of Clark Douglas here at the edge of town. There was a crash, then silence, and the line remained open." First responder Sergeant Tripp tells Dr. Feather that when he got there:
". . . we found Clark Douglas lyin’ on the floor of his study, where he had fallen with the telephone beside him. Stabbed, and pretty badly slashed. He’s a big powerful man. Looks like the killer left him for dead. But he didn’t die. He recovered enough to get to the telephone an’ call for help. Then he dropped unconscious."
The victim, the policeman explains, has plenty of potential enemies:
"An’, my Gawd, with those editorials Douglas writes, there’s a thousand people in this county would like to kill him."
But as it turns out, only one would-be murderer is responsible for this, and that person, remarks Dr. Feather, happens to have "very unusual blood indeed. Deficient in lime salts and calcium salt. And a deficiency in fibrin-ferment." (Of course, everybody knows what that means.) The old saying is very true in this case: Blood will tell.

- Wikipedia has a relatively brief article about Ray Cummings HERE and the SFE a more extensive one HERE; FictionMags has a listing of his total production (that we know about) HERE and one for his Dr. Feather stories HERE (20 titles); and the ISFDb has a bibliography of his non-mystery output HERE.
- The Ray Cummings Megapack: 25 Golden Age Science Fiction and Mystery Tales for Kindle (for sale HERE) collects the stories above plus what he was better known for, his science fiction.

The bottom line: "They hunted till darkness came on, but they found not a button, or feather, or mark."
Lewis Carroll

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