Mike Ashley, surely the world’s hardest-working editor of short story collections, has combined two of my loves with Future Crimes (2021): detective fiction and SF. As a fan of crossover mysteries, this seems tailor-made for me, and I have Countdown John to thank for bringing it to my attention. So, how does it stack up?
We begin with ‘Elsewhen’ (1943) by Anthony Boucher, a name well-known to classic crime and classic SF readers alike. Throwing out its core conceit in the opening line (“I have invented the world’s first successful time machine.”) and then immediately undercutting its impressiveness with a wonderful response, this follows the exploits of inventor Harrison Partridge, who is unaware “that his great discovery was to turn him into a murderer”. What’s pleasing here is how quickly the time travel element becomes just another feature of an otherwise classically-styled detective yarn, from a butler who “could not decide whether a hired detective was a gentleman or a servant” to historical asides of the type that litter the Golden Age (“The most outrageous and fascinating French murder since Landru was committed because the electric toaster didn’t work right that morning.”).
There’s also an interesting streak of moral rightness in our murderer — setting up the killing of a wealthy uncle to appear physically impossible in order to protect any innocent from being accused — and Boucher veers into the territory of egomania (“How pleasant it would be to fence with a detective — master against master. To have a Javert, a Porfir, a Maigret on his trail and to admire the brilliance with which the Great Harrison Partridge should baffle him.”) as the scheme goes right and then wrong, resulting in yet more killing. Some choices hold this back — does the inclusion of Fergus O’Breen, Boucher’s series private detective from much more quotidian ploys, really add anything beyond a confusing addendum to the O’Breen-iverse? Does Partridge’s choice of time to return to and commit another murder really make sense, even factoring in his egomania? — but the final line revelation is fun, and the moment Partridge realises that his entire murderous scheme is entirely pointless is beautifully weighted.
A triumph of setting over plotting, ‘Puzzle for Spacemen’ (1955) by John Brunner resolves its core mystery of a pilot dead from explosive decompression (“not a pretty sight”) while alone in his ship very swiftly come the end, and is more about the pressures brought to bear on the man who must be made to solve the mystery. Yannick Huyghens, overseeing the construction of a satellite between Earth and Jupiter, is less than delighted when the drifting ship is spotted nearby, and his attitude only gets more negative when the dead body is discovered aboard, especially given the psychological strain that working in deep space has already put on the 93 men on his team:
“Here there’s nothing for millions of miles in all directions. Nerves get ragged, living over a literally bottomless pit. To force men already in the shadow of death by blowout to occupy their minds with the consequences of a singularly unpleasant case of it would be criminal idiocy in its own right.”
The detection here is minimal, and I’m not entirely sure it supports as rigorous a conclusion as Brunner presents, but great use is made of the off-world setting and the operation of certain key features of spaceships. That Hal Jennings, the man sent to establish whether the death is murder, is an ingenue in the world is a trope as old as stories allowing much to be explained to the reader, but Brunner’s class lies in still not over-explaining. And the hard SF trappings — messages from so far out can only be sent in tiny bursts of letters, necessitating the development of new codes to convey complex meaning briefly, say — are utterly delightful. I remember thoroughly enjoying Brunner’s novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968) yeeeears ago, and on this evidence I really should track down more of his stuff.
“How might Freeman Wills Crofts approach an alien invasion story?” is, perhaps surprisingly, the question which best frames ‘Legwork’ (1956) by Eric Frank Russell. Andromedan being Harasha Vanash, a “twenty-four carat hypno” whose powers “could convince [you] in a split second that black was white, right was wrong, the sun had turned bright green”, arrives on Earth intent on research that will see the puny natives fall before the hypnosis-powered Andromedan empire as 50 planets have before. Intelligently, Vanash knows that simply convincing people to hand over things, while barely touching the thinnest edge of his capabilities, will leave a trail that might be traced, and so goes about his business in as inconspicuous a way as possible: selecting a suitable form to project into the minds of those around him (“Characters, who wore uniforms, usually took orders, had fixed duties, were liable to be noted and questioned…”) and then heading into the nearest town to test out this new world.
Enter investigator Edward G. Rider, a giant of a man whose mental acuity is brought to bear on the matter of a bank robbery achieved, as far as anyone can tell, by perfect physical mimicry. Guided by the Croftsian adage that “the mills of man grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small”, Rider sifts seemingly endless data using the reach and numbers of law enforcement in a way that begins to circle ever-closer to our untouchable alien. Leaning into the Red Menace fear of Communist action that informed most classic SF of this era, Russell writes focussed, muscular prose that rarely stands still and builds to a neat reversal ending (“This game of imitation was one at which two could play.”) let down only by the Pulpish need for gunplay to cap it off, ignoring the far more interesting question raised in the coda.
‘Mirror Image’ (1972) by one of the all-time greats Isaac Asimov is set in the same universe as impossible crime crossover classic The Caves of Steel (1954), with robot R. Daneel Olivaw calling on policeman Elijah ‘Lije’ Bailey to resolve “a game of intellectual chicken”. Two mathematicians each claim to have devised a wonderful new theory, each claim to have checked their thinking with the other, and each claim that the other then stole their work and is claiming it as their own. Given the disdain those from beyond Earth hold for Earthmen, Bailey would not be allowed into the presence of the men concerned, but can a video interrogation of their robot servants resolve the matter?
I’ll be honest, as I get older I find Asimov’s stories around the three laws of robotics less and less convincing, and their application here — taking the purely philosophical and making a convenient leap to the physical — doesn’t wash for me. Far more compelling is the human psychology angle put forward by Bailey in the closing paragraphs, from which he claims to have known the solution from the very off. It seems a shame for a story citing mathematics, robotics, and detection not to be resolved by some logical fallacy, which should be well within Asimov’s grasp, and as such this feels like someone setting up a humdinger only to deliver a fustercluck. It’s an easy read, and the relationship between Bailey and Olivaw is always fun, but I’m sure better examples could be plucked from the Good Doctor’s brobdingnagian oeuvre.
Another big name, this one from the field of detection, presents itself next with Jacques Futrelle, best known for his stories featuring Professor S.F.X. van Dusen, a.k.a. The Thinking Machine. ‘The Flying Eye’ (1912) is the third and final story to feature investigator Paul Darraq, who relates the story of having seen a gigantic floating eye above a body of water and invites our narrator Mr. Lester to witness it for himself. Suitably disturbed by the sight (“‘Twas nothing below, ’twas nothing above, ’twas nothing to either side — ’twas merely a fascinating, sinister thing…hanging above the lake.”), Lester then relates various other oddities associated with the apparition and then…well, hold onto your hats.
This is an SF story only in that the physical explanation given for events is too preposterous to work in the real world way it is presented, and asking us to accept that it does makes the head hurt. While there is a terrestrial explanation offered as apparently conclusive in the world of the story, you’ll be hard-pushed to convince anyone that this is supposed to be read with a straight face, coming off rather like a parody of Jules Verne; Futrelle’s stories divide pretty sharply for me, and this one goes in the bin. Still, you have to admire the optimism of the man that “Some day…the world will become civilised enough to abolish war, with its pitifully useless waste of life”, and reflect that, horrible though his death on the Titanic doubtless was, at least he was spared the spectacle of the world tearing itself apart twice in the three decades that followed. And continuing to do so in the 80 years since.
The spirit of Alfred Hitchock’s Lifeboat (1944) — or, perhaps more accurately, its surprisingly good space age update Lifepod (1993) — is strong in ‘Nonentity’ (1955) by E.C. Tubb: seven survivors of a deep space explosion in a lifeshell designed to hold five, on “the slow route to hell with a preview thrown in for free”. You know where this is going, and if you’re surprised by the killer’s identity then I have a bridge in London you’re the perfect buyer for, but Tubb has a good line in capturing his small cast through compact observations:
“Yeah,” Jeff automatically clenched his big hands as if the problem could be solved by physical violence. “How do we do it, Henley?”
…and so teases sufficient humanity out of the survivors to make them at least slightly sympathetic. The sense of people trapped in such a situation under the strain of “shock, terror, the sickening fear of imminent death and the physical frenzy of desperation” is palpable without being dragged out tediously, and I fully appreciate how this gets on with its intentions efficiently. While squarely more of a thriller than anything close to a story of detection, and while not exactly packed with surprises, you still feel a kick when the final line hits and you realise how deeply the instinct to yearn for survival runs.
I’ve read ‘Death of a Telepath’ (1959) by George Chailey before, though I’m damned if I can remember where. Two men in a space station, one of them — a telepath, “universally hated” for making the most “intimate thoughts” of the people around them “an open book” — dead. Except, being a telepath, her surely would have known his murder at the hands of the other was imminent…so howdunnit?
This is…fine. It raises — obliquely, never addressing it — the interesting question about conscious and subconscious thought and whether a telepath is able to distinguish one but not the other, and the detection in its terminal deduction isn’t really understood by the reader, but it’s under 2,000 words long and so hardly represents time wasted.
While not exactly unknown at the softer end of the SF scale, P.D. James is a name that probably causes a moment’s pause when reading the contents page of an SF collection. ‘Murder, 1986’ (1970) finds a society divided by a lethal virus, with the infected denoted Interplanetary Disease Infection Carriers, or “Ipdics”, and segregated out of “Normal” (James’ word) society to live out miserable existences that will end in agonising spasms and a slow painful death…unless they take the euthanasia pills so thoughtfully provided by the sub-Orwellian government first. When the barely-regarded Sergeant Dolby finds an ipdic woman murdered in her apartment while surrounded by wildflowers, he bucks the expectations of an uncaring society and vows to bring her killer to justice.
The timeline is a little muddled on this one, and the world is very dimly sketched in, but a lighter hand allows the reader a little more space to fill in the horrors that such a society would engender. James’ focus seems to be scattershot (the Big Brother-esque Leader giving a speech on the noon news is a weird divergence that adds nothing) and the plot is unlikely to surprise anyone beyond a closing sting which raises the question of how fair some information provided earlier was. Despite the virus/pandemic framing — alas, now significantly less of an SF conceit than imagined back then — this feels more like a 1970s crime story with the fixations of that era: corruption, inequality, repression of freedoms, subjugation of lower-class members of society, etc. And that’s cool, and exactly the thing this genre has been exploring for decades now, but rarely does SF look at such issues so directly, and so this story comes out as a little more ponderous than those surrounding it.
The theft of a set of expensive clothes and jewellery from an upmarket store, which could only have been committed by someone with psychic powers, has far-reaching consequences in ‘Apple’ (1969) by Anne McCaffrey. With the U.S. government due to vote on legislation that would see the physically gifted legally protected, the risk of one malefactor turning the tide of opinion seems a little overstated to me…but there you go. Pushing against antagonistic attitudes which still view these emerging talents as menacing rather than helpful — McCaffrey does good work in explaining their limitations succinctly and clearly — investigator Daffyd op Owens must prove that the perpetrator bucks the trend rather than represents it.
There’s a clear parallel with the X-Men comics of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby here, not least with the Juggernaut-esque Orley who is both the cause of and answer to a great deal of difficulties. This turns into a pretty nifty, fast-paced race against time as our Jean Grey-alike antagonist, possessed of powers she barely knows how to control, must be found and dealt with before causing too much chaos…a series of events that I can believe would sway public opinion. A few too many instances of over-subtlety leave you not entirely sure quite what unexamined powers various characters end up possessing, but the way Owen and Commissioner Frank Grillings find themselves at loggerheads is well-written and realistically explored. Rare for this sort of thing, and a lovely bonus in a slight but enjoyable story.
Finally, ‘The Absolutely Perfect Murder’ (1965) by Miriam Allen deFord, which finds Melvin Alspaugh desperate to get out of a marriage which has become a “persistent torture”. Might the serendipitous availability of time travel technology provide a way out of his difficulty?
This is light and fun, if a little overwritten at times — we don’t really need that much detail about the horrors of incarceration, nor the difficulties involved in acquiring The Weapon — and, even if you know where it’s going, I’m willing to bet that the final line will surprise you. A lovely finish to the story and collection both.
Most multi-author collections don’t have this high a hit rate, with everything here except that Jacques Futrelle story demonstrating a good mix of SF and detection and managing to stir in some interesting ideas along the way…as SF should. Ashley has selected well, and I’m intrigued to find other crossover works mentioned in his introductions, not least those written by deFord.
As this collection only contains ten stories, a “best five” is a slightly trickier proposition, but I’d go with:
- ‘Puzzle for Spacemen’ (1955) by John Brunner
- ‘Legwork’ (1956) by Eric Frank Russell
- ‘The Absolutely Perfect Murder’ (1965) by Miriam Allen deFord
- ‘Elsewhen’ (1943) by Anthony Boucher
- ‘Apple’ (1969) by Anne McCaffrey
And, hey, the quality here makes me hope that the British Library will put out a second volume of crossover mysteries in due course. A man a can dream, right? That’s why people started writing SF in the first place…