Thursday, May 5, 2016

"What the Baker Street Irregulars Will Make of It Is Uncertain"

Recently we highlighted two of Fletcher Pratt's stories that competently combine detective fiction tropes with science fiction (HERE); but Pratt could also offer intelligent critiques of his chosen field. In this excerpt from one of his Saturday Review columns (1951), he notes how the mystery story in some instances has crossed over into science fiction (or is it the other way round?):
. . . perhaps the most remarkable trend (if it is one) this summer is toward a mariage de convenance between fantasy, scientific or not, and the detective story. John Dickson Carr's "Devil in Velvet" frankly admits the union; after starting as a perfectly classic fantasy with our old friend His Satanic Majesty on stage it turns into a perfectly classic detective story, laid in the days of Charles II of England and accompanied by sword-play and various Carrian complications. For fantasy fans it rates as a good try; what the Baker Street Irregulars will make of it is uncertain.
At exactly the opposite end of the corridor stands A. E. van Vogt's "House That Stood Still," purporting to be science fiction but actually a confused detective story of the type in which the hero gets slugged in every chapter and winds up in the arms of a lulu. The scientific features include a race of immortals, who keep a spaceship underground near the Pacific coast for no discernible reason and who can assume the physical form of anyone else in order to make things more confusing. They are not very convincing.
On the other hand, William F. Temple's science in "Four-Sided Triangle" is extremely convincing, perhaps because he asks you to accept so little of it, perhaps because he has kept it in the background while he deals with the emotional involvements of his characters. The story belongs to the English type of "Why they do it" rather than to the "Whodunit," with the science-fiction element honestly stated at the very beginning.
Jack Williamson's "Dragon Island" must also be included in the list of quasi-detective stories, because its plot turns on intrigue and the solution of a mystery, though the science in it is neither subordinated nor incredible. It is good Williamson, almost as good as his memorable "Darker Than You Think," and one of the first science-fiction stories to combine the idea of a successor race with that of modern genetics in a logically satisfying manner.
. . . IN ERIC FRANK RUSSELL'S "Dreadful Sanctuary" the technical problems of moon-flight have been solved—but the moon-rockets keep blowing up as soon as they are outside the atmosphere. The research into the reason by an inventor who has no intention of seeing his own rocket go "pouf!" makes this one of the better science fiction-cum-detective stories; it also gives the author an opportu-nity for some highly diverting examination of such matters as "How do you know you're sane?" and the scientific effects of revealed religion. The dialogue is a little too peppy, and there is a little too much of it; still, the story is nicely conceived and original. — Fletcher Pratt, "Time, Space & Literature," The Saturday Review, July 28, 1951 (online HERE)
- Nick Fuller and Barry Ergang share reviews of The Devil in Velvet HERE.
- Wikipedia's article on The House That Stood Still is HERE (WARNING: SPOILERS).
- Four-Sided Triangle was made into a movie; see Wikipedia HERE (again, WARNING: SPOILERS) (n.b.: "Differences from the novel").
- In Dragon's Island, was Jack Williamson the first to use the term "genetic engineering"? See the article at Biology in Science Fiction HERE for explication.
- Dreadful Sanctuary has received an entry on Wikipedia HERE (guess what: WARNING: SPOILERS).
- Clearly Fletcher Pratt took an interest in not only detective fiction (often incorporating some of its characteristics into his own SF stories) but also true crime, as these two articles from the '30s show:

  "Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsene Lupin."
   By Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).
   First appearance: The American Mercury, January 1936.
   Online HERE.

. . . and . . .

   "Crime As a Profession."
   By Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).
   First appearance: The American Mercury, February 1937.
   Online HERE.

Categories: Detective fiction and SF criticism

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