Saturday, March 30, 2024

"His Head — What Was Left of It — Lolled on One Side"

"Puzzle for Spacemen."
By John Brunner (1934-95; Wikipedia HERE; ISFDb HERE; SFE HERE; FictionMags HERE).
Illustration by Quinn (1927-2015; ISFDb HERE).
First appearance: New Worlds Science Fiction, December 1955.
Reprints include:
 No Future in It (1962)
 Special Wonder (1970)
 Special Wonder, Volume 1 (1971)
 Future Crimes (2021)
Reprints page (ISFDb HERE).
Novelette (24 pages).
Online at The Luminist Archives (HERE; go to text page 40) and (HERE; go to text page 40).
(Parental caution: Strong language.)

   "A man who has been subjected to fourteen pounds’ explosive decompression is not a pretty sight."

Jennings has a problem: "He was not welcome; to these men, anyone prying into violent death was ghoulish, because it was always a dreaded and imminent fact to them. Death in space was usually swift and accountable; if there was ever a mystery, the black maw of the void swallowed it beyond the reach of man." With this and those other difficulties that he's confronted with, then, it's not surprising to Jennings that proving what seems to be an accidental death was actually a murder isn't going to be easy—not easy at all . . .

Principal characters:
~ Clore:
  "Preserved by the unchanging vacuum, Clore was not nice to look at."
~ Yannick Huyghens:
  "Try as he would, the problem which had defeated him a dozen times defeated him again; perhaps his very desperation was blinding him."
~ Louis Baron:
  "I’ve been checking our orbit — the total orbit of the system, that is. Looks like we underestimated dust-drag a bit."
~ Klaus:
  "Seems you were right about there being two men on board. Clore left Pluto with another of your employees, an agent called Klaus, who was trying to make Mars."
~ Kurt Lochmann:
  "The damned man doesn’t do anything, but it’s just his being here which is bad. I had a bad dream last night from it.”
~ Hal Jennings:
  "As a psychologist, of course, I'm certain it was murder."
~ Dr. Meadows:
  "Men in isolated conditions have always hated the presence of death — it’s a basic prejudice which we shall probably never eliminate altogether."
Sadly for some, when humankind moves off-planet, space will become their final frontier:
   "I know a little about the laws relating to criminal insanity. There has never before been a murder in space, except for those caused by maniacs who later committed suicide. Most deaths off the surface of a planet occur through accident or, more rarely, nervous break-down."

References and resources:
- "Our ’fax equipment":
  Fax machines have a surprisingly long history, nearly 180 years. (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "Out here sanity is at a premium":
  "The psychological effects of living in space have not been clearly analyzed but analogies on Earth do exist, such as Arctic research stations and submarines. The enormous stress on the crew, coupled with the body adapting to other environmental changes, can result in anxiety, insomnia and depression." (Wikipedia HERE and HERE.) (Also see the NASA book Psychology of Space Exploration HERE.)
- "It cost my firm three thousand credits to get me here":
  For some reason science fiction writers seem to think that "dollars" aren't in our future: "The use of 'credits' is particularly common in futuristic settings, so much so that Sam Humphries has pointed it out as a cliché: 'In any science-fiction movie, anywhere in the galaxy, currency is referred to as "credits".' Credits are frequently envisioned as a form of electronic money." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "You Earth-bound desk pilots don’t seem to have heard about relativity. Out here, we trip over it every time we fiddle with long-distance radio":
  In science fiction stories it's always assumed that communications signals will travel, like on Earth today, at the speed of light—unless, that is, the author has dreamed up some sort of F(aster)T(han)L(ight) comm system; otherwise we're confined to Einstein's theory: "The principle of invariant light speed – '... light is always propagated in empty space with a definite velocity [speed] c which is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body.' That is, light in vacuum propagates with the speed c (a fixed constant, independent of direction) in at least one system of inertial coordinates (the 'stationary system'), regardless 
of the state of motion of the light source." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "the unchanging vacuum":
  "Outer space has very low density and pressure, and is the closest physical approximation of a perfect vacuum. But no vacuum is truly perfect, not even in interstellar space, where there are still a few hydrogen atoms per cubic meter." (Wikipedia HERE.) "Out in space, sudden exposure of an unprotected human to very low pressure, such as during a rapid decompression, can cause pulmonary barotrauma—a rupture of the lungs, due to the large pressure differential between inside and outside the chest. Even if the subject's airway is fully open, the flow of air through the windpipe may be too slow to prevent the rupture. Rapid decompression can rupture eardrums and sinuses, bruising and blood seep can occur in soft tissues, and shock can cause an increase in oxygen consumption that leads to hypoxia." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "caused by the magnets on his boots":
  "Although many science fiction works assume some type of artificial gravity or use 
rotation to 'create' gravity, magnetic boots still feature for purposes of exterior repairs 
or in emergency situations." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "mentally reviewed the current ephemeris":
  "Solar System ephemerides are essential for the navigation of spacecraft and for all kinds of space observations of the planets, their natural satellites, stars, and galaxies." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "this rash of building on Io":
  Trying to construct something on Io, our space probes inform us, isn't a good idea: "With over 400 active volcanoes, Io is the most geologically active object in the Solar System. This extreme geologic activity is the result of tidal heating from friction generated within Io's interior as it is pulled between Jupiter and the other Galilean moons—Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Several volcanoes produce plumes of sulfur and sulfur dioxide that climb as high as 500 km (300 mi) above the surface. Io's surface is also dotted with more than 100 mountains that have been uplifted by extensive compression at the base of Io's silicate crust. Some of these peaks are taller than Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth's surface." (Wikipedia HERE and HERE.)
Io (bottom left) compared to the Moon and the Earth.
Not likely.
- "that red light alongside the airlock":
  "Airlocks are used in outer space, especially during human spaceflight, to maintain the internal habitable environment on spacecraft and space stations when persons are exiting or entering the spacecraft. Without an airlock, the air inside would be rapidly lost upon opening the door due to the expansive properties of the gases that comprise breathable air, as described by Boyle's law." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "The classic case, which gives its name to the condition, is Packer’s, back in 1874 in Utah. In that case it was combined with cannibalism":
  "Alfred Griner Packer (1842–1907), also known as the 'Colorado Cannibal', was an American prospector and self-proclaimed wilderness guide who confessed to cannibalism during the winter of 1874." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "the population of Mars second now to Earth":
  Thanks to space probes we now know that the Mars of Burroughs's imagination, Barsoom, was just that, imaginary, meaning that there isn't going to be a land rush to settle Mars:
  "Mars's orbit is close to Earth's orbit and the asteroid belt. While Mars's day and general composition are similar to Earth, the planet is hostile to life. Mars has an unbreathable atmosphere, thin enough that its temperature on average fluctuates between −70 and 0 °C (−94 and 32 °F), yet thick enough to cause planet-wide dust storms. The barren landscape on Mars is covered by fine, toxic dust and intense ionizing radiation. Mars has in-situ resources, such as underground water, Martian soil, and ore, which could be used by colonists. [However] Opportunities to generate electricity via wind, solar, and nuclear power using resources on Mars are poor." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "Weiszacker and Gamow had shown how planets could be formed from the inchoate dust of the Beginning":
  "Weizsäcker made important theoretical discoveries regarding energy production in stars from nuclear fusion processes. He also did influential theoretical work on planetary formation in the early Solar System." (Wikipedia HERE.) "Gamow was interested in the processes of stellar evolution and the early history of the Solar System. In 1945, he co-authored a paper supporting work by German theoretical physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker on planetary formation in the early Solar System. Gamow published another paper in the British journal Nature in 1948, in which he developed equations for the mass and radius of a primordial galaxy (which typically contains about one hundred billion stars, each with a mass comparable with that of the Sun)." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "a little of the dust":
  "The Solar System has its own interplanetary dust cloud, as do extrasolar systems." (Wikipedia HERE.)

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.

Friday, March 29, 2024

"He Left Me a Clue to His Murderer's Identity"

"The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery."
By Jon L. Breen (ISFDb HERE; Fantastic Fiction HERE; Ellery Queen megasite HERE).
First appearance: EQMM, March 1969.
  Best Detective Stories of the Year: 24th Annual Collection (1970)
  Ellery Queen’s Anthology #42, Fall/Winter 1981
  Hair of the Sleuthhound (1982; online HERE).
Short short story (7 pages).
Online at The Luminist Archives (HERE; go to text page 134.)

   "Can you solve a murder without a dying message?"

Because we have great respect for humor and humorists, especially regarding how difficult it can be for them to construct it, we don't intend to steal Mr. Breen's thunder by rehearsing all of the inside jokes that permeate this pastiche-parody. Just read it for yourself and enjoy.

Main characters:
The great detective:
~ E. Larry Cune:
  "Since murder seemed to follow E. Larry, he had taken on the aspect of a Jonah, or so some thought . . ."
The long arms of the law:
~ Inspector Richard Cune:
  "It's just like 1929 all over again!"
~ Sergeant Healy:
  ". . . the hammy hands and beefy arms of Sergeant Healy."
and a plenitude of show biz types, all equally clueless, among them:
~ Orson Coward:
  ". . . the famed writer-director-producer-composer . . ."
~ Pat Alison:
  "Is that a clue?"
~ Nora Redcap:
  "'E. Larry,' Nora almost screamed, 'that's supposed to be the finale'."
~ Van Washington:
  "We couldn't understand why he did that."
~ Hugh Vivyan:
  "Really, Mr. Cune, is this necessary?"
~ Millicent Grady:
  "I'm her mother . . ."
~ Alfie Tanager, the stage manager:
  ". . . looked truculent . . ."
~ Flossy Blore:
  ". . . a Broadway showgirl romantically linked with Orson Coward . . ."
~ Victor Towne:
  "Mr. Cune, who could possibly have done this terrible thing?"

References and resource:
- "Frank Norris' turn-of-the-century novel, McTeague":
  "McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, otherwise known as simply McTeague, is a novel by Frank Norris, first published in 1899. It tells the story of a couple's courtship and marriage, and their subsequent descent into poverty and violence as the result of jealousy and greed." (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE.)
- "Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath":
  "An American Tragedy is a 1925 novel by American writer Theodore Dreiser. . . . It was based on the notorious murder of Grace Brown in 1906 and the trial of her lover, Chester Gillette." (Wikipedia HERE.) "Set during the Great Depression, the novel [The Grapes of Wrath] focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work." (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE.)
- Michael Grost has much more info about Jon L. Breen on his megasite (HERE):
  "Breen began his literary life as a satirist and pastiche artist, mainly writing short spoofs of Golden Age detective writers. His best stories of this period are loving recreations of S. S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen. Breen is remarkably good at conveying the 'feel' of these authors - although it is a parody, 'The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery' recaptures all of the excitement of reading the Ellery Queen stories themselves. Similarly, some of his Van Dine pastiches are very good detective stories in their own right."

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

"Fourth Suspect? What Fourth Suspect?"

ELLERY QUEEN (the editor) offers us this exemplar of deduction ("Just to prove," he says, "that Ellery Queen's 'dying message' technique is not always just 'fun and games'"), when we encounter a case of . . .

"Murder in the Park."
By Ellery Queen (1905-71 and 1905-82; Wikipedia HERE; Ellery Queen Rediscovery Website HERE; Michael Grost's Megasite HERE).
First appearance: This Week, July 9, 1950, as "The Mystery of the 3 Dawn Riders."
Reprinted in EQMM, March 1969 (today's text).
Short short short story (4 pages).
Online at The Luminist Archives (HERE; go to text page 141).

   "What's sugar mean in your dictionary, son?"

Usually the obvious solution is, well, obvious; but we should never overlook the lesson Father Brown taught us about ordinary people and "invisible" men . . .

Principal characters:
~ Shakes Cooney:
  ". . . bookie, tout, gambler, underworld slug, clubhouse creep, with the instincts of a jay and the ethics of a grave robber . . ."
~ Mounted Patrolman Wilkins:
  ". . . was there when it counted, and it was he who collared the three gentlemen who, curiously, were in the neighborhood of the deserted Tavern and Cooney's corpse at that ungentlemanly hour."
~ Senator Kregg:
  ". . . totalitarian . . ."
~ Piers d'I. Millard:
  ". . . ill-advised . . ."
~ The Hon. Stevens:
  ". . . a sucker play . . ."
~ Inspector Richard Queen:
  "'He must be one of your readers,' said the Inspector. 'Because, Ellery, that's a dying message or I'm the Senator's uncle'."
~ Ellery Queen:
  ". . . now I know whom Shakes Cooney meant!"

Reference and resource:
- "Only horse he knows how to ride is a dark one":
  "The concept [of the dark horse candidate] has been used in political contexts in such countries as Iran, Philippines, Russia, Egypt, Finland, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Politically, the concept came to the United States in the nineteenth century when it was first applied to James K. Polk, a relatively unknown Tennessee politician who won the Democratic Party's 1844 presidential nomination over a host of better-known candidates. Polk won the nomination on the ninth ballot at his party's national nominating convention and went on to become the country's eleventh president." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- "the instincts of a jay":
  A possible libel against what might be considered justifiable conduct: "Jays are very territorial birds, and they will chase others from a feeder for an easier meal. Additionally, the blue jay may raid other birds' nests, stealing eggs, chicks, and nests. However, this may not be as common as is typically thought, as only 1% of food matter in one study was bird material." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- We recently communed with Ellery Queen (the detective) with respect to his first Puzzle Club story, "The Little Spy" (HERE).

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.

Monday, March 25, 2024

"His Right Hand Came Up Out of His Pocket with the Automatic Already Spitting Fire"

"Not a Leg To Stand On."
By Don Mardick (?-?).
First appearance: Suspense Magazine, Fall 1951.
Short story (10 pages).
Online at SFFAudio (HERE).

   "Autopsy shows lots of angles you don't figure."

WHEN a cat plays with a mouse it's usually a prelude to lunch, but what if there are two cats? You'd think that between them they'd be able catch that elusive mouse, piece of cake. Now imagine the mouse is a man in a wheelchair harboring a criminal secret and our two cats are investigators trying to pry it out of him—but, despite normal expectations, it's looking like wheelchair guy just might be able to work his way out of this bind . . .

Main characters:
~ Jack Conroy:
  "Jack? He wouldn't come here. He knows the insurance people've been watching me ever since the payroll robbery three years ago."
~ Prentice:
  "Then what's all the palaver about? And the gun?"
~ Conroy:
  "Cops or not, I told you fellows to get out of my house and I mean it."
~ Davidson:
  "You expected him. You were spending the payroll money. You wanted to keep on spending it."

References and resources:
- "the battered Sears, Roebuck catalogue":
  Published by a company that's still making profits after more than 130 years: "Richard Warren Sears started a business selling watches through mail order catalogues in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, in 1888. By 1894, the Sears catalogue had grown to 322 pages, featuring sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, automobiles (produced from 1905–1915 by Lincoln Motor Car Works of Chicago, not related to the current Ford Motor Company brand of the same name) and a host of other new items." (Wikipedia HERE, HERE, and HERE.)
- "No fatted calf":
  A meaningful metaphor if you know your Bible: "Fatted calf is a metaphor or symbol of festive celebration and rejoicing for someone's long-awaited return. It derives from the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the New Testament." (Wikipedia HERE.)
- When it came to short stories, Don Mardick was hardly what you would call prolific (FictionMags data):
  (1) "Needle in the Haystack," (ss) Hollywood Detective, December 1949
  (2) "Not a Leg to Stand On," (ss) Suspense Magazine, Fall 1951 (above).

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

"The Murder, the Sculpturing of Clay from Warmth to Coldness Was Done, and Nobody Knew"

"The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl."
By Ray Bradbury (1920-2012; ISFDb HERE).
Illustrated by Art Sussman (1927-2008; ISFDb HERE).
First appearance: Detective Book Magazine, Winter 1948, 
as "Touch and Go!".
Many reprints:
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), January 1953
Argosy (U.K.), March 1954
Cavalier, February 1960 (today's text)
Ellery Queen’s Anthology #3 (1962)
Ellery Queen’s 12 (1964)
Best Murder Stories (1965)
Mystery and Suspense Stories (1977)
Horror (1978)
Murder Most Foul (1984)
The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953)
Killer, Come Back to Me: The Crime Stories of Ray Bradbury (2020) (Reviewed HERE).
Short short story (7 pages).
Online at starting (HERE; text pages 24-26), continuing (HERE; text page 57), still continuing (HERE; text page 66), even more (HERE; text page 68), and finishing (HERE; text page 70).

   "The fingerprints were everywhere, everywhere!"

Shakespeare, as usual, got it right: "They whose guilt within their bosom lies, imagine every eye beholds their blame." In his mind, for this killer even the eyes of the smallest beholders, the ones that live in the walls, see his guilt . . .

Principal characters:
~ Donald Huxley:
  "Pick it up. Turn it over. See the fine thinness of the bowl, hand-thrown on a turntable, thin as eggshell, incredible. And the amazing volcanic glaze? Handle it, go ahead. I don't mind."
~ William Acton:
  "A long moment passed. Acton did not breathe. Without new air in his body he began to fail away, to sway; his head roared a silence of cold waves thundering onto heavy rocks."
~ Billy-boy:
  ". . . drunk as an owl, Huxley, old pal, drunker than two owls."

References and resources:
- "Out damned spot, eh, Acton?":
  Quoting Lady Macbeth sleepwalking in her nightie. (Shakespeare Online HERE.)
- Murder comes in several varieties in the USA; which one do you think fits today's story? Think about it.
"First-degree murder:
  "Any intentional killing that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought. Felony murder, a charge that may be filed against a defendant who is involved in a dangerous crime where a death results from the crime, is typically first-degree, but may also be second-degree.
"Second-degree murder:
  "Any intentional killing that is not premeditated or planned. A situation in which the killer intends only to inflict serious bodily harm, knowing this could result in death but with no specific intent to kill, constitutes depraved-heart murder, which can be considered as second-degree murder.
"Voluntary manslaughter:
  "Sometimes called a crime of passion murder and informally called third–degree murder, this is any intentional killing that involves no prior intent to kill and which was committed under such circumstances that would 'cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed'. Both this and second-degree murder are committed on the spot under a spur-of-the-moment choice, but the two differ in the magnitude of the circumstances surrounding the crime. For example, a bar fight that results in death would ordinarily constitute second-degree murder. If that same bar fight stemmed from a discovery of infidelity, however, it may be voluntary manslaughter.
"Involuntary manslaughter:
  "A killing that stems from a lack of intention to cause death but involving an intentional act of negligence, which may or may not be premeditated, leading to death. A drunk driving-related death is typically involuntary manslaughter (see also vehicular homicide, causing death by dangerous driving, gross negligence manslaughter, and causing death by criminal negligence for international equivalents). Note that the 'unintentional' element here refers to the lack of intent to bring about the death. All three crimes above feature an intent to kill, whereas involuntary manslaughter is 'unintentional', because the killer did not intend for a death to result from their intentional actions. If there is a presence of intention it relates only to the intent to cause a violent act which brings about the death, but not an intention to bring about the death itself. However, there are exceptions, such as felony murder and depraved-heart murder, the latter of which can be considered as voluntary manslaughter or second-degree murder, instead of involuntary manslaughter, despite the lack of explicit intention to kill."
(Wikipedia HERE.)
  TV Tropes also weighs in on the subject (WARNING! SPOILERS! HERE).
- "the old days when they rattled papyrus, flourished ink, dusted all with sand to dry the ink, and pressed their signet rings in hot crimson tallow at the bottom":
  "Fingerprints have been found on ancient clay tablets, seals, and pottery. They have also been found on the walls of Egyptian tombs and on Minoan, Greek, and Chinese pottery. In ancient China officials authenticated government documents with their fingerprints. In about 200 BC, fingerprints were used to sign written contracts in Babylon. . . . References from the age of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (reigned 1792–1750 BCE) indicate that law officials would take the fingerprints of people who had been arrested. During China's Qin Dynasty, records have shown that officials took hand prints and foot prints as well as fingerprints as evidence from a crime scene." (From Wikipedia.)
  Fingerprints are a major concern in our story; see Wikipedia (HERE) for a good summary.
- "my Gregorian [sic? possibly a misprint of Georgian] cutlery":
  "The major items of cutlery in Western culture are the knife, fork and spoon. These three implements first appeared together on tables in Britain in the Georgian era." (Wikipedia HERE; also see HERE.)
- "ceramics by Gertrude and Otto Natzler":
  "Gertrud Amon Natzler (1908–1971) was an Austrian-American ceramicist, who together with her husband Otto Natzler (1908-2007) created some of the most praised ceramics art of the 20th century, helping to elevate ceramics to the status of a fine art." (Wikipedia HERE and HERE.)
- For some reason "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl" reminds us of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (online HERE).
Illustration by Virgil Finlay
- We last perused Ray Bradbury's work with "Night Train to Babylon" (ONTOS HERE).

The bottom line:

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.