Like a latter-day Edgar Rice Burroughs, Manly Wade Wellman’s Earthman-out-of-his-element story casts the protagonist as a near-superhuman saviour who is hated by the powerful, championed by the underdog, and treated to sweet, sweet lovin’ by an appreciative female who’s clearly never experienced this sort of hunkiness before. Think Jack Reacher of Mars for best (?) results.
Dillon Stover — tall, blond, muscular, “his young face made strong by the bony aggressiveness of nose and jaw”, unlikely scientist — comes to Mars to continue his grandfather’s work of forming enough of an atmosphere to prevent the water on the planet boiling away and thus providing relief to the citizens of that steadily-dessicating society (no-one needs breathing apparatus, though, so there’s clearly already enough of an atmosphere to retain oxygen…but let’s move swiftly on). Early turns of phrase such as “the problem of the Martian water shortage had absorbed him” might raise your hopes, but be in no doubt: this is all pulp, most of the time (we’ll get back to that). Stover is framed for a murder he couldn’t have committed yet which a witness insists he did, and then we’re in a fairly standard man-on-the-run pulp serial from the 1930s.
The Ramble House edition of this book shown above is 145 pages long, but the slightly larger font makes it probably 115 pages in reality, and for most of its length you’re kept pretty busy — deaths, capture, escape, accusation, thrilling derring-do, deaths, capture, escape, suspicion, death…originally serialised in 1942 — I do not know what, if any, changes were made for this novelised version — this ticks all the boxes of such a tale: the dialogue is terrible, the action barely makes any sense, each chapter is a vignette almost in its own right…apart from a few technical gizmos and one element we’ll come to later this could easily be Los Angeles or London or somewhere else with Big Business Folk, Untrustworthy Hardbitten Cops, Suspicious Political Toadies, and of course Lovely, Lovely Ladies.
And yet, and yet…there’s something here which does sort of elevate it above the standard schlock. Stover is an asshole with a penchant for just hitting people when they irritate him, and who seems to take being slung in the calaboose following a very credible accusation of murder against him as a personal slight rather than the logical action of a conscientious police force, but there is actual growth in his character as the story progresses, and he does start to engender something akin to — if not quite sympathy — at least a reduced disdain from the reader’s perspective. Injuries hamper him (with a sort of grim moue, no doubt) when it becomes necessary to raise the stakes, and can then be neglected when he wants to punch someone or climb a rope, but this authorly character-deification (you thought I was joking about the Jack Reacher similarities, didn’t you?) irritated me far less towards the end than it did at the start.
Although, now I think about it…
Around him, there’s an equal mixture of the cursed and the blessed. Far and away the most interesting character is Robert Buckalew, who knew Stover’s grandfather and may or may not have a hand in the calamities that befall him, almost permanently shrouded in various mysteries around his age, his dealings with various antagonists, and the early nebulous threat of being exposed by “a single word”. As a second-string story, I actually think the Buckalew Conundrum is pretty tip-top; once the revelations of the impossible murder are settled, the resolution of who Buckalew is, where his loyalties lie, and how and why he acted in the way he did is honestly probably brilliant. Mad, but brilliant. If any other character comes out of this as well-rounded as Buckalew, I failed to notice.
And what of the Martians? For a story set on Mars we see very little of them, but Wellman does a very interesting thing in the presentation of their speech (which I at first thought was a typo) that a canny way of communicating their differentness without constantly having to make references to physical appearance, attitude, or cultural back-story. This fits in very well with his general asceticness of style, with everything conveyed in a terse and propulsive manner and only the occasional diversion into a moment of atmospheric phrasing or a lingering pass at environmental description. It’s essentially Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) — in that we have a nightclub, some apartments, a desert, a police station, and a story about water — with hovering cars and clunky robots, but the fact that Wellman isn’t trying to convey some deeper message about society helps: he’s free to just get on with his story.
But for something that could so easily have been set in a contemporary Earth city, there must be a reason for the SF trappings if it’s not some thinly-veiled allegory. And that comes about from the impossible murder. In his review at Beneath the Stains of Time, TomCat says that “the method for the locked room explosion deserves a nod of acknowledgment, because it’s clever and reasonably well clued,” and this is what I can’t decide. The clewing is, to my mind, the bare minimum required, with mention of something that — if you know the world — you might start to put together, but I see no reason why we, the reader, should have any idea that what’s done is even possible in this reality. But it’s certainly very…novel, even if a huge amount of convenience (not to mention speedy work!) would be required for this to happen as successfully as it does as repeatedly as it does.
But, well, no-one is pretending this is likely, and it’s certainly far, far easier a sell in this milieu. It is clever, too, but is it too ridiculous? This is where I come unstuck, and part of why I haven’t saved this for a standard stars-at-the-end review: I just don’t know how good it is. As something that shows the diversity of plotting available within the impossible crime subgenre it’s great — not quite up there with Inherit the Stars, nor A Quantum Murder, mind — and it unquestionably deserves kudos for the inventive way it resolves the two main mystery strands.
If you want to know if it’s any good, however, well, you’re going to have to read it yourself…