Saturday, January 30, 2021

"His Face, Clearly Visible Through the Hard Curved Lusilite of His Helmet Froze in a Last Grimace of Terror"

IF YOU ARE a veteran reader of science fiction, then you have probably already encountered today's story, possibly many times; but if you've never read it before, then you're in for a treat as Wendell Urth, extraterrologist, unofficial amateur armchair detective, and amalgamation of Dr. Thorndyke and Reggie Fortune, unravels the mystery of . . .

"The Singing Bell."
By Isaac Asimov (1920-92).
First appearance: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1955.
Reprints page (plenty of them) (HERE).
Short story.
Online at (HERE; 14 pages) and (HERE; 19 pages).
     "There is nothing so conducive to an appearance of innocence as the triumphant lack of an alibi."

Rarity determines value, and the maguffin in our story is very rare, indeed: ". . . there are a hundred people and institutions who would buy one at any price, no questions asked. A supply of Bells would be worth murder." Sure enough, that's just what our killer thinks, 
too . . . .

Main characters:
~ Albert Cornwell:
  "I know of a cache, sir, a cache of . . . you know, sir."
~ Louis Peyton:
  "Singing Bells?"
~ Sam Leibman:
  ". . . touched his hat as he had done on July 30 for fifteen years."
~ MacIntyre:
  ". . . checked gravely over the list . . ."
~ H. Seton Davenport of the T.B.I.:
  "I have come to consult you in a case of murder."
~ Wendell Urth:
  "Murder? What have I to do with murder?"

Asimov, an admitted admirer of Golden Age detective fiction, deliberately patterned the bipartite structure of "The Singing Bell" on R. Austin Freeman's 1912 mystery short story "The Singing Bone." Freeman briefly discussed his choice of using the inverted form in his essay "The Art of the Detective Story":

  "Some years ago I devised, as an experiment, an inverted detective story in two parts. The first part was a minute and detailed description of a crime, setting forth the antecedents, motives, and all attendant circumstances. The reader had seen the crime committed, knew all about the criminal, and was in possession of all the facts. It would have seemed that there was nothing left to tell. But I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence. And so it turned out. The second part, which described the investigation of the crime, had to most readers the effect of new matter. All the facts were known; but their evidential quality had not been recognized." (The full essay is on the GAD Wiki HERE).

Just as with some of R. Austin Freeman's detective fiction and all but one of the episodes of the TV series Columbo (see HERE and HERE), the crime and the perpetrator are known from the beginning; the fun comes from watching the sleuth nail the perp.

Typo: "it's use".

References and resources:
- "Tycho Crater": Over fifty-three miles across and about three miles deep; see Wikipedia (HERE) for details and (HERE) for how it figured in a blockbuster SF film.
- "Venusian ocean": As we have observed before, since so little was known in the 1950s about actual conditions on Venus, SFF writers felt free to give the planet sandy deserts, swamps crawling with dinosaurs, even, as here, oceans; see Wikipedia (HERE and HERE).
- "Arcturus V": Right now the data are not looking good for this star possessing a planetary system. "Relatively close at 36.7 light-years from the Sun, Arcturus is a red giant of spectral type K0III—an aging star . . . It is 1.08±0.06 times as massive as the Sun, but has expanded to 25.4±0.2 times its size and is around 170 times as luminous"; see Wikipedia (HERE) and (HERE).
- Urth is the classic armchair detective; see the stubby Wikipedia article (HERE).
- "Moon rock is much the same as Earth rock": A safe assumption in the mid-'50s; see Wikipedia (HERE) and (HERE).
- "get me permission to use a psychoprobe": Primitive brain-reading experiments are already underway, but as Asimov tells us (although not in so many words) there are grave 5th Amendment self-incrimination aspects to mind probing for Americans; see Wikipedia (HERE) and "Lewis Padgett's" SFFnal treatment of the notion (HERE).
- To our surprise and delight we discovered early on in developing this weblog that science fiction 'tecs are nothing new; see our posting about Sam Moskowitz's survey of the early SFFnal gumshoes (HERE).
- The Wendell Urth series list can be found on the ISFDb (HERE).
- It's no exaggeration to say how important to the SFF field Isaac Asimov was; for proof, see these websites: Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), a tribute site (HERE), the IMDb (26 writing credits; HERE), an annotated bibliography (HERE), and the ISFDb bibliography (HERE).
- We've featured Asimov before, concerning his robots/crime fiction crossovers (HERE) and (HERE), as well as his unique murder mystery, "The Billiard Ball" (HERE). (NOTE: the link seems to have been removed.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

"There's a Thirty-eight Aimed Right at Your Head"

IT HAS BEEN a while since we've had a mystery with a show business background; in this one, an unsuspecting stage performer turned amateur sleuth will discover to his peril that somebody he's on a first name basis with has come to the grim conclusion that . . .

"Death Is the Answer."
By John D. MacDonald (1916-86).
Illustrator unknown.
First appearance: Thrilling Detective, October 1948.
Short story (13 pages).
Online at (HERE).

     "What do you think he meant by that belt stuff, and Margy?"

"Cheaters never prosper," we're told—in fact, some cheaters don't live long enough even to begin to enjoy their ill-gotten gains . . . .

Principal characters, one of them a killer:
~ Tom Schurtz:
  "At the moment he was Professor Quotient."
~ Nick Wellar:
  ". . . moved like a bull fighter and talked with all the good humor and intelligence of a ten-cent slot machine."
~ Stan Haverly:
  ". . . was careful, self-contained, scorned a bit by Tom and Nick as an outsider who was in, but not of, the entertainment world."
~ Mary Adams:
  "Without its ever being said aloud, Nick, Tom and Stan knew that she was the balance wheel, the foil, the symbol of unity."
~ Lieutenant Bandred:
  "You cut it pretty close . . ."

Here's that "moment" again, the one where it all falls into place for the sleuth:
  "He stopped shaving, his razor in midair . . ."

References and resources:
- "reading Variety": It's been around since 1905; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "a lead spot with Martha Graham": "Martha Graham (1894–1991) was an American modern dancer and choreographer. Her style, the Graham technique, reshaped American dance and is still taught worldwide"; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "in Tuxedo Junction": Meaning a small town; Glenn Miller's recording about it made him and his orchestra a bundle of money; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "the one, the only, Eddie Condon": Well known in the jazz and swing music fields at the time: "From 1945 through 1967 he ran his own New York jazz club, Eddie Condon's, first located on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village . . ."; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "against the law of percentages": Commonly called the "law of averages": "As invoked in everyday life, the 'law' usually reflects wishful thinking or a poor understanding of statistics rather than any mathematical principle. While there is a real theorem that a random variable will reflect its underlying probability over a very large sample, the law of averages typically assumes that unnatural short-term 'balance' must occur"; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- Naturally, how and why memory works is of intense interest to neuroscientists; see Wikipedia (HERE and HERE).
- "It was not hard work, standing on the stage of a theater . . .": "Mentalism is commonly classified as a subcategory of magic and, when performed by a stage magician, may also be referred to as mental magic. However, many professional mentalists today may generally distinguish themselves from magicians, insisting that their art form leverages a distinct skillset. Instead of doing 'magic tricks,' mentalists argue that they produce psychological experiences for the mind and imagination . . ."; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- John Dann MacDonald wrote in many pulp genres, sometimes landing sales in the higher-paying slicks; ONTOS postings featuring MacDonald's work include "Nicky and the Tin Finger" (HERE), "There Hangs Death!" (HERE), and "Who's the Blonde" and "Dead on Christmas Street" (HERE).

Saturday, January 23, 2021

"His Brain Told Him It Could Never Be Proved As Murder"

"Ordeal in Space."
By Ralph Sloan (?-?).

Illustrator unknown.
First appearance: Planet Stories, Fall 1949.

Reprints page (HERE).
Short story (11 pages as a PDF).
Online at Project Gutenberg (HERE).

(Parental caution: Graphic physical violence.)

     "This was Lieutenant Mike Logan's chance—alone in space with the man he ached to kill. A man, bound and helpless, who taunted him, dared him, goaded him—knowing Mike had to bring him in alive!"

Most people encounter temptation along life's way, but in Logan's case it's being deliberately shoved into his face . . . .

Main characters:
~ Commander Bates:

  "I used to think I could count on you. Well, I was wrong."
~ The post commandant:
  "You'll sit on the court martial, of course, General?"
~ General Winkham:
  "Get out of here. I'm sorry about this, Lieutenant, but the captain is within his rights."
~ Mike Logan:
  ". . . had reached the emotional saturation point."
~ Oscar:
  ". . . hesitated, uncertain, then teetered and dropped downward."

~ Edward Snyder:
  "You wonder why I say this. It's because I'm going to choose my death."

Resources and references:
- "two months of tramping over Pluto's ice cliffs": In this detail our author seems to get it mostly right; see Wikipedia (HERE).

- "the stink and the mud and the cold of the outer planets": Pluto used to belong that club until subversive eggheads expelled it; see Universe Today (HERE).
- "The guards were Jovians, local police, short, rotund, lobster-faced individuals": But they didn't get that way from living "on" Jupiter; see Wikipedia (HERE and HERE).
- "The roar of the jet engines became erratic and jerky": Not in the vacuum of space they didn't; see Ask an Explainer (HERE).
- "west of the Mountains of Caucasus": A well-known lunar feature some of whose peaks reach nearly four miles; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "the towering crags of the Alps": Interesting how so many names of Earth features got transferred to the Moon; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "tossing them yards into the air": Since there's no air on the Moon to be tossed into, let's cut him some slack and assume our author is using the word metaphorically; as for those "yards," that's very possible; see lunar gravity as it's discussed on Wikipedia (HERE).
- Ralph Sloan is an enigma; we known nothing about him except his very small bibliography on the ISFDb (HERE).


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

"We Are Interested in Murder, Not Larceny"

OUR AUTHOR'S main claim to fame is his four-dozen stories (more or less) featuring New York state police officer Edward "Tiny" David, but today's narrative goes in a different direction, focusing instead on someone called . . .

"Mrs. Murder."
By Robert R. Mill (1895-1942).
Illustrations by Charles Chickering (1891-1970; HERE).
First appearance: Blue Book, October 1939.
Short story (10 pages; 7 illos).
Online at (HERE).
   ". . . when the clippings—they cover a period of over a year—came to the desk of a man who has reason to take interest in what is not too obvious—well—"

In classic private eye style the rent is coming due and business is non-existent—until a client walks through the door with an offer our PI and his brash secretary just can't refuse . . . .

Principal characters:
~ Sue Bickford:
  "She was doubtful about doing it, but the results more than justified her decision."
~ Charles Wood:
  "I haven't any desire to be the subject of a sixth newspaper clipping . . ."
~ Horace Wildron:
  "He is paying for the party, and he has more than a financial interest in it, so why shouldn't he?"
~ Viola Batmos:
  "Maybe we can get together on it—later."
~ The man:
  "You sure can pick 'em."
~ The doctor:
  "He will be all right in a minute or two."
References and resources:
- "one of Mr. Hoover's bright young men": None other than J. Edgar himself. It's been said that Washington is awash in blackmail culture, so it seems plausible that Mr. Hoover could have made the most of it, as alleged; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "Isn't that nice, Mr. Vanderbilt?": It's likely Cornelius Vanderbilt, the transportation tycoon, is meant; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "According to Dorothy Parker, they protect a gal from passes": She even got her own postage stamp; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- What we're dealing with here is what's commonly called a "lonely hearts killer," possibly based on the infamous Belle Gunness herself; see Wikipedia (HERE and HERE).
- Another Robert R. Mill story not starring "Tiny" David is "Jail-Bait" (HERE), while two stories featuring Officer David, "Murder on the Island" and "Murder at Dark Lake," are highlighted (HERE).

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Lost in Translation

By Fredric Brown (1906-72).
First appearance: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1958.

Short short short story (1 page).
Online at SFFAudio (HERE; PDF).

     "They'd give him anything he asked for."

One little mistake . . . .

Major characters:
~ Ralph NC-5:

  "Foods, wonderful foods, chased one another through his mind."
~ The Arcturians:
  ". . . are inhuman but very friendly."

- Fredric William Brown is one of our favorites; see the posting featuring his crime story "Twice-Killed Corpse" (HERE).


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

"You're Pinched"

SUICIDE OR MURDER? In real life what looks like a suicide sometimes turns out later to be murder, and vice versa. In today's story a smart policeman will be confronted with that conundrum, but to solve it he will have to consider the importance of a . . .

By Murray Leinster (Will F. Jenkins, 1896-1975).
Illustrator unknown.
First appearance: Popular Detective, February 1944.
Reprinted in Popular Detective (Canada), December 1944 and Triangle Quarterly, Fall 1945.
Short short short story (4 pages).
Online at (HERE).
(Note: Text faded but readable.)

     "But the aspirins ain't aspirins."

It certainly looks like suicide, but a police investigator thinks the circumstantial evidence points another way . . . .

Principal characters:
~ Anna Martin:
  "He barged in, smashed some windows, and found his wife with her head in the gas-stove oven."
~ Bob Martin:
  "Suspecting him's absurd."
~ Harrison:
  "But you can't arrest a man if his wife commits suicide."
~ Murphy:
  ". . . looked at the written order, nodded, and went out once more."
~ Detective-Sergeant Larned:
  ". . . the darndest people do the darndest things! This is the dumbest trick I've ever seen. Killin' sticks out all over it."

Reference and resource:
- "Pajamas, toothbrush, and a box of aspirins.": "Aspirin is one of the most widely used medications globally, with an estimated 40,000 tonnes (44,000 tons) (50 to 120 billion pills) consumed each year." (Wikipedia HERE).
- About a year ago we highlighted Murray Leinster's Cold War SFFnal thriller, "The Psionic Mousetrap" (HERE). We will be checking in with the incredibly prolific Leinster (pronounced "Lenster") in the future.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

"Time To Think and Dream"

"Planet of Dreams."
By James McKimmey, Jr. (1923-2011).
Illustration by Paul Orban (1896-1974; HERE).
First appearance: IF, Worlds of Science Fiction, September 1953.
Reprints page (HERE).
Short short story (7 pages as a PDF).
Online at Project Gutenberg (HERE).
(Parental caution: Brief profanity.)

     "The climate was perfect, the sky was always blue, and—best of all—nobody had to work. What more could anyone want?"

Suppose that, after centuries of ceaseless toil, humankind finally achieves an earthly Paradise. Would that bring contentment—or something else . . . .

Main characters:
~ Daniel Loveral:
  "I envy you, George."
~ George Atkinson:
  "Oh, like hell you do."
~ Mrs. Atkinson:
  "George, I told you. Why didn't you listen, George? You should have listened to me."

- James Earl McKimmey, Jr. was most active publishing SFF in the early '50s to the late '60s, branching out to crime fiction for AHMM, Cosmopolitan, Shell Scott, and Mike Shayne; see the FictionMags Index (HERE), the Point Blank site (HERE), and the ISFDb (HERE).

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

"All Eyes Kept Turning Furtively Toward the Empty Jewel Case"

TODAY'S AUTHOR presents us with the classic stolen stone trope that Agatha and a plethora of other detective fiction writers before and after them promiscuously exploited for years, confronting us with . . .

"The Case of the Missing Heirloom."
(a.k.a. "The Malmsey Jewel").
By Sax Rohmer (Arthur Sarsfield Ward, 1883-1959).
Illustrations by Robert Fawcett (1903-67; HERE).
First appearance: This Week, April 22, 1956.
Short short story (6 pages).
Online at SFFAudio (HERE; PDF) and (HERE).
     "Even cut up, it would fetch a small fortune."

After the lights go out, imagine what has suddenly gone missing: "The faces of most of the eight persons present registered various degrees of alarm and embarrassment . . ."

Principal characters:
~ Sir John Malmsey:
  ". . . the Luck, not being a frog, can't very well have jumped away."
~ Jill Malmsey:
  "And here we are, camping out in the old manor house. Twenty-nine rooms, twenty-two locked — and a diamond worth a million!"
~ Molly Hatherton:
  "[Jill's] old school friend."
~ Dr. Don Greydon:
  "Very well, the pendant is still here. If the ladies will stand on the hearthrug and turn their backs . . ."
~ Dick Hatherton:
  "Trying to spark this beastly thing! It let me down."
~ Phil Engold:
  "Rose-cut with the rare blue tint. I can detect no flaw."
~ Mrs. Prudence Ordley:
  "I've always thought it a sinful jewel."
~ William Ordley:
  "Its faint glow revealed the fact of William Ordley, docile husband of the formidable Prudence."
~ Searle:
  ". . . lay face downward on the floor, his arms at his side."
~ . . . and The Law: Inspector Rigley, Sergeant Lake, and Detective Officer Mary Rollins.

- Although he created other series characters, Sax Rohmer will be forever remembered as the originator of not only Fu Manchu but also an entire universe built around him; there's no shortage of information available about Rohmer/Ward on the World Wide Webbie: Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), the IMDb (HERE; 44 screen credits), and the ISFDb (HERE).
- About three years ago we noted Rohmer's short story "The Owl Hoots Twice" (HERE).

Saturday, January 2, 2021

"The Spotlight Meant Violence and Sudden Death"

HERE'S ANOTHER ATTEMPT that works to combine the hardboiled motif with SFF, and it succeeds very well, with more characterization than usual; our protagonist has no inkling that very shortly he will have to undergo a life-changing . . .

"Shock Treatment."
By Stanley Mullen (1911-74).

Illustration by Wilson (?-?; HERE).
First appearance: Worlds of IF, September 1952.

Novelette (32 pages).
Online at SFFAudio (HERE) and (HERE).

     "One of us is nuts. It's a toss-up."

When a knockout femme comes to a down-on-his-luck bartender for help ("the task," she says, "should be simple"), trouble—and plenty of it—is only just beginning . . . .

Main characters:
~ Newlin:

  "To him all men were enemies. As a spacebum, he had explored the raw expanding frontiers as Man surged from planet to planet."
~ Songeen:
  "Then she came in—and he was no longer bored."
~ Careld:
  ". . . swept up the corpses into neat piles of ash . . ."
~ Genarion:
  "His alien form was a bridge between two worlds . . ."

Comment: Just when you think it's going one way, this story takes the reader in totally unexpected directions; and while Mullen employs copious amounts of descriptive prose, he does it without being boring.

Typo: "sanity as its furthest riples".

References and resources:
- "cloud-shrouded Venus": Up until the 1960s, science fiction writers made the most of mankind's collective ignorance of Venus: "The impenetrable Venusian cloud cover gave science fiction writers free rein to speculate on conditions at its surface; all the more so when early observations showed that not only was it similar in size to Earth, it possessed a substantial atmosphere. Closer to the Sun than Earth, the planet was frequently depicted as warmer, but still habitable by humans." (Wikipedia HERE and HERE).
- "elder brothers to the human race": The SFFnal trope of an elder race (a.k.a. forerunners or precursors) pops up in our story; see Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), and TV Tropes (HERE) for more details.
- "like Aeolian harps": "The Aeolian harp has a long history of being associated with the numinous, perhaps for its vibrant timbres that produce an ethereal sound. Homer relates that Hermes invented the lyre from dried sinews stretched over a tortoise shell. It was able to be played by the wind. The same is said of the lyre of King David, which was played by a wind sent from God." (Wikipedia HERE).
- "Chinese windbells": "Wind chimes started to become modernized around 1100 B.C. after the Chinese began to cast bells." (Wikipedia HERE).
- "as far beyond Einstein's as his were beyond Euclid's": If you're going very fast, then Einstein's your man; otherwise, you live in Euclid's universe. (Wikipedia HERE and HERE).
- There's more about our author on Wikipedia (HERE) and the SFE (HERE).
-  We recently highlighted Stanley Mullen's crime/SFF hybrid "S.O.S. Aphrodite!" (HERE).