Our theme is Crime in Costume for the TNBs this month, and I’m interpreting that laterally and looking at James P. Hogan’s unabashedly scientific debut which is essentially a good old-fashioned impossible crime decorated and disguised in SF trappings.
I love a good crossover mystery — one of these days I really must get round to writing a post on why Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians is quite simply the single-finest example of genre-straddling ever achieved (yes, better even than Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel) — but I’d like to make it clear that Hogan isn’t writing that kind of book at all. His puzzle, involving a 50,000 year-old corpse of a fully-developed human found on the Moon and wearing a spacesuit, is instead as diamond-hard SF as you’re going to get: what follows is one of the most astonishingly technical and scientifically rigorous pieces of fiction surely ever written. If the problem-solving delights of Andy Weir’s recent deserved smash hit The Martian fancied your tickle, then this is the book for you, because holy hell isn’t it ever grounded in some amazing scientific fact and a brilliant stir of seamless speculation.
So, no, it’s not a crossover mystery because there’s no crime as such. But like TomCat, who brought this to my attention a little while ago via Ho-Ling’s own review, I’m keen to appropriate this for we fans of detection and deduction because it not only ticks just about every single box that we want to see filled but does so with a Mont Blanc pen filled with ink made from unicorn tears. As TC put it so perfectly in the comments of that post, this book is “definitely worth a shot for seasoned mystery readers who’ve read tons of mysteries of every possible shape and stripe, because it’s something very, very different that still can be considered a detective story.” And this is the beauty of our chosen genre, because it has that adaptability to be turned into something that perfectly fulfils the requirements of another set of expectations, and so is able to keep two sets of rabid, highly-strung, demanding nerds happy at the same time.
The empyreal connotations of Hogan’s story potentially lend themselves to a lot of navel-gazing, but thankfully he’s not too bothered about that. Instead, a collection of brilliant scientists descend — our detective analogs — and some of the most sublime speculation on real science ground begins in earnest. It is a little dry at times, but if you’re a detail nerd you’ll be in heaven: this is Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, John Dickson Carr’s locked-room lecture from The Hollow Man, Monsignor Ronald Knox’s Decalogue, S.S.van Dine’s 20 Rules for Writing Detective Fiction, and Freeman Wills Crofts on a particularly insistent day all being cut up and rearranged by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke while Frederik Pohl glances over their shoulders and puts in the occasional suggestion. There’s a brief moment when it is posited that some information about the planet Charlie (that’s what they call the body) came from can be deduced by looking at the crystalline structure of the glass that formed the faceplate on his spacesuit, as differing gravities would have caused different arrangements and shapes of the liquid form as it cooled…thanfully you’re saved a further lecture or a needlessly drawn out explanation, the suggestion is simply put out there and the referred to later, but this is the level of detail Hogan puts into everything. And it’s amazing.
Fundamentally, it’s an alibi problem: where the hell was Charlie at the crucial time (which, er, just happens to be 500 centuries ago)? If his height and the composition of his bones mean that he can’t have come from a planet with a density greater than x and the symbols in his pocket-book imply that the planet had a year with y days in it, then it must have been distance z from the Sun moving at speed a and therefore would have crashed with Venus. Hmm, try again. If he came from Earth and so the year had 365 days then these symbols mean it was divided up into different durations from our hours, but then those same symbols found elsewhere would imply that he’s more than 50,000 years old and we know that’s correct because of the carbon-dating. Hmm, try again. If Lady Phyllis was seen outside the Chameleon Club at 4am by her stalker who was then hit by a taxi as he raced across the road before she saw him, the taxi driver (who waited with him for the ambulance to arrive) can’t have also left his fingerprints on the ladder up to the roof of the hotel opposite when a shot was fired from there at 4:07 into the apartment of the mob witness who was killed by that bullet while simultaneously having been drowned in the East River three hours previously. Hmm, try again…
The setup is patently impossible — 50,000 years ago man was drawing on cave walls with sticks of charcoal, the notion of rainfall was doubtless a complete mystery, and any medical requirement more serious than a toothache was probably remedied by a slow and painful death or a club to the head. Rest assured: Hogan is not claiming that neolithic Man strapped on a rocket pack and went for a grand day out on the Moon during his summer holidays. In this context, the Moon is the ultimate hermetically-sealed room, and the caveman in the spacesuit is simply a delightful flourish akin to the unbroken field of snow across which he must have walked to gain entrance. In this regard, I was reminded of the Jonathan Creek episode ‘The Omega Man’ in which the body of an alien being is uncovered in the desert, but then vanishes from a locked crate in the back of a locked truck while in transit to a military base. Both are rife with SF lore and potential, and both shimmy effortlessly around the potential pitfalls of trying too hard to find something clever and therefore reaching for something stupid instead — though the Creek is more in the field of impossible crimes than this come its final revelations.
Best of all — and, truly, this is no mean feat — Hogan’s solution is both fairly clued and pure hard SF. No “oh, it turns out we got the carbon dating wrong and it’s out mate Jeff who went missing on that mission to the Moon three years ago — c’mon, you must remember Jeff, he brought in cupcakes every third Thursday” nonsense, and there’s a slim chance that anyone new to the genre might find it a little unsatisfying, but it’s a brave and wonderfully smart solution that accounts for all the clues and puts all the suspects in the right place at the right time for good reasons. Best of all, if you put in a little time, it’s available in secondhand in paperback for not-ridiculous amounts of money (though there’s some idiot trying to sell it for £118.99 on Amazon, as always), so hopefully — while most definitely out of print — this shouldn’t cause too great a fiscal burden if you decide to check it out.
And now the key question is: are there any more like this? Because I am hooked….