Sunday, April 3, 2016

"His Skull Had Been Crushed by a Fifth Dynasty Martian Statuette"

"Public Eye."
By Anthony Boucher (William Anthony Parker White, 1911-68).
First appearance: Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1952.
Anthologized in Space, Time & Crime (1964).
Collected in The Compleat Boucher (1999).
Short story (10 pages).
Online at UNZ HERE.
Parental caution: Strong language.
"A wily counsellor proves he was in two places at the same time."
A couple of hundred years in the future seventy billion people are scattered across the planets and moons of the Solar System. Despite mankind's technical advancements, however, some old evils remain, including jealousy and murder:
It was an old-fashioned, even an archaic murder, and Fers Brin found his mind haunted by a half-remembered archaic line. Something about being surprised that the old man had so much blood. . . . Another level of his mind registered and filed the details of the scene. Another level took him to the phone for the routine call to the criminalistics squad. But the topmost conscious level held neither observation nor reason, but only emotion . . .
As it turns out, that seventy billion number will prove to be crucial to Brin's solution to the case.

Principal characters:
~ Dolf Mase, a defense attorney who claims a ninety percent win rate:
   "Spare me the moral lecture which I can already read, my dear captain, in those honest steely eyes of yours. I have no desire to devote myself to the good of the system, nor to the good of anyone save Dolf Mase."
~ Fers Brin, a "public eye":
   "Tell your watchers they've had a rare privilege. They've just seen a public eye get a hunch and he's acting on it right now!"
~ Captain Wark, head of the Identification Bureau:
   "It's the perfect alibi in history, Brin. Alibi means elsewhere, or used to—"
~ Lu Mase, Dolf's brother:
   "There was that time when Dolf was young. . . He'd convinced me that he'd changed. . ."
~ The Port Luna police sergeant:
   "That son-of-a-spacesuit! We been trying to pin something on him for years!"
~ Bets: She likes steaks:
   "I get kind of hungry around five."

   "I've got me a problem—one they can't solve by criminalistics. One that maybe disproves criminalistics."
    "You probably know that the whole science of crime detection goes back only a few centuries—roughly to about the middle of the Nineteenth. By around another century, say in Nineteen Fifty, they knew scientifically just about all the basic principles we work on; but the social and political setup was too chaotic for good results. Even within what was then the United States, a lot of localities were what you might call criminalistically illiterate . . ."
   ". . . you know that it [period literature] was full of something called private eyes—which maybe stood for private investigator and maybe came from an agency that called itself The Eye. These characters were even wilder than the Mad Scientists and Martians that other writers then used to dream up; they could outdrink six rocketmen on Terra-leave and outlove an asteroid hermit hitting Venusberg. They were nothing like the real private detective of the period—oh yes, there were such people, but they made their living finding men who'd run out on their debts, or proving marital infidelity."
    ". . . I had a great-great-grandfather who was a private eye. I've read a lot and they keep saying they couldn't write a detective story about the 'future'—meaning, say, now—because everything would be different and how could you be fair? And the answer I've got is one you could have figured out even in the Twentieth Century. It's a problem that couldn't happen till now, but the answer was in their knowledge. They had a writer named Quinn or Queel or something who used to issue a challenge to the reader, and this would be the place to do it."
   ". . . we missed the whole point. There never was any such certainty. There were only infinitely long odds."
- Anthony Boucher was quite active (perhaps hyperactive is more accurate) in crime fiction writing, criticism, and science fiction, as the following sources indicate: Wikipedia HERE, the GAD Wiki HEREMysteryNet HERE, FictionMags HERE, the SFE HERE, the ISFDb HERE, the IMDb HERE, and ONTOS HERE.
- Other weblog postings about Boucher and his books: The Rap Sheet HERE; At the Scene of the Crime HEREand Noah Stewart HERE, HERE, and HERE.

The bottom line: "Galton's calculation of 1 chance in 64 billion was quoted ceremonially in the decades following his book, but it seems fair to say that by the late 1920s the basis for their acceptance was neither scientific argument nor well-documented empirical study."
Stephen M. Stigler

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