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.)


  1. I have very mixed feelings about inverted detective stories. They really need to be done particularly well. Freeman did them quite well and Columbo almost always did them well.

    1. "inverted detective stories. They really need to be done particularly well." It might be stretching a point to say that inverteds could be characterized as a scientific approach to fictional art; Freeman's bio affirms he was a scientist, which might explain Asimov's affinity for Freeman's take on the subgenre.

    2. It might be stretching a point to say that inverteds could be characterized as a scientific approach to fictional art

      Freeman's Dr Thorndyke was regarded as one of the first literary "scientific detectives" so that makes sense.

      "Scientific detectives" were quite a thing in the period immediately preceding the First World War. Jacques Futrelle's Thinking Man being an obvious example.