Thursday, February 4, 2016

"The Web of Deception of Which He Was Beginning to Think Himself the Center"

By Sam Merwin, Jr. (1910-96).
First appearance: Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1953.
Short story (17 pages).
Online HERE.
"Out in space, out in the silence and the darkness between worlds, where the hours drag so slowly, there's always time for murder!"
It's 2073, and Ivan Rutherford Y Barra, the Permanent Secretary of the United Planets, has his hands full, with spaceships crashing on landing, which is bad enough, but the crashes are more than just disasters resulting in a terrible death toll. They threaten the political stability of the Solar System and, as Rutherford slowly comes to realize, are acts of sabotage:
"Venus threatens to bypass Earth entirely in favor of direct trade with Mars and Ganymede. Mars and Ganymede threaten to occupy Titan and other Saturnian satellites by force unless mandate restrictions are changed."
Not only are his hands full but they're also, in a very peculiar way, tied, because the people he suspects of conspiracy and mass murder are cloaked in diplomatic immunity, keeping him from using up-to-date methods to get at the truth:
"Jacques," said Rutherford when his aide's voice trailed off, "have you ever heard of proof? I know it's old-fashioned but police did use to capture and convict criminals before sera and hypnotism came into use. They went out and dug up the facts."
Commodore Willis said, "The way I heard it, they just rounded up all the suspects and beat hell out of them until someone confessed."
While going Old School appeals to Rutherford, he figures it won't be necessary to go that far:
The Permanent Secretary of the United Planets was an incurable crime mystery-story addict. Of all honors that had befallen him he prized most highly his membership in the Mystofans, a small association of like addicts who met bi-weekly in the Old City house to discuss the more arcane aspects of their hobby. Hypnotics and truth sera had rendered crime detective [sic] a mere matter of questioning for almost a century, had thereby eliminated not only most major felonies but the literature about them as well.
Rutherford's "addiction" will serve him well when he finds his main agent dead in his own study:
. . . [He] lay on his back, sprawled out on the carpet. His mouth was open, his skin even yellower than it had been the night before. He was as dead as a man can be.
For the Permanent Secretary:
It was his first contact with murder—he had already so labeled it in his mind—and while he enjoyed it vicariously in fiction he found the fact not only undra-matic but frightening. Belching unhappily Rutherford decided he could not eat another mouthful.
He decides to keep the whole thing quiet, confiding only in Commodore Willis:
WHEN the space-aide had left Rutherford rose and paced the carpet. He felt a stirring in his adrenal glands, a rising sense of excitement. Like Nero Wolf [sic], his idol, he was going to bring the human elements of a criminal conspiracy together and, instead of applying the twenty-first century commonplaces of hypnotics and truth sera, was going to confront them with material elements amounting to proof. And if he handled the situation correctly he was going to save the Solar System from disaster.
Applying Wolfeian methods to the situation, Rutherford arrives at a motive and whodunnit:
"The oldest motive for crime outside of hunger—power. Our chief conspirator is a man who, through sublimation of his craving to rule the System, is willing in the name of the highest possible motives to let part of that System destroy itself so that he can seize the reins. He is socially as dangerous as a Communist—or a Puritan."
Comment: A cute idea that almost works: someone in the future being forced by circum-stance to apply the outdated approach to crime solving used by the "ancient" sleuths found in detective fiction from over a century earlier—but, seriously: "Aggie" Borden, Nero "Wolf", and "Archy" Goodwin, not to mention easily avoided grammatical errors (e.g., "have received ultimate from both sides")? Sloppy.

- Sam Merwin is the subject of a Wikipedia article HERE, a FictionMags list HERE, the ISFDb HERE (naturally), and some of his other stories can be found on Project Gutenberg HERE.
- "Martin Kane" is mentioned in the story; at the time it was published everybody knew who Kane was—"television's first private eye":
Played by actor William Gargan on both radio and television, Kane was an affable kinda guy, sporting a spiffy bowtie and smoking a pipe, and looked for all the world like somebody's uncle, but under the veneer, he was hard and determined, and nobody's patsy.
But still further under that, he was still a kind of a doofus.
Which doesn't necessarily make these shows any less watchable, although some of the entertainment value was definitely unintentional. — Kevin Burton Smith, The Thrilling Detective Web Site (HERE).

The bottom line: "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock."
  — Will Rogers

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