Monday 13 September 2021

Future Crimes: Mysteries and Detection through Time and Space, edited by Mike Ashley


This latest British Library Science Fiction Classics anthology sent to me for review combines my favourite genres, as I read almost as many detective stories as I do science fiction or fantasy.  The Editor's introduction is quite brief this time, pointing out that there has always been a strong science element in both (forensic) crime and science fiction, with many examples being given of stories including both. The ones reproduced here are essentially SF, with the addition of a crime to be solved.

Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943). This is the most common pseudonym for William A.P. White (1911-1968), who started writing crime fiction but later focused on SFF, with a light and often humorous touch. Elsewhen concerns the secret development of a time machine by a private inventor, who decides to use its capabilities to remove his rival for the heart of a young woman with whom he is obsessed, while simultaneously accelerating his inheritance of a large fortune. He devises an ingenious plan which appears to be foolproof, but open-minded detectives are soon on his trail.

Puzzle for Spacemen by John Brunner (1955). John Brunner (1934-1995) has recently featured a couple of times in this blog. Although he mostly focused on SF, he also wrote mysteries and this one combined both. A spaceship from Pluto arrives at a space station at Jupiter with one dead pilot inside, killed by explosive decompression resulting from the sudden loss of the cabin's air. This should have been impossible, and a special investigator is sent to discover how this happened. The answer involved not just technical trickery but also psychology, a discipline which has developed to a much more advanced level.

Legwork by Eric Frank Russell (1956). Russell (1905-1978) was one of my favourite authors in the 1960s and I still enjoy his tongue-in-cheek humour. A hostile alien from Andromeda secretly arrives on Earth in order to assess whether the planet is worth taking over.  His task is  aided by the possession of a super-power: he can make people believe anything he wants them to, including that he is a normal-looking human. This power has an effective range of about a mile and is permanent, reversible only by the alien. One of his first acts is to rob a bank in order to amass enough money to fund his activities. However, this brings the police into the picture, who find various impossibilities to explain. In the end, it is systematic, painstaking collection and analysis of routine data - legwork - which provides the answer.

Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972). Another famous SF author - in this instance, the one whose achievements I most admire after those of H.G. Wells (with Jules Verne in the No.3 spot). Asimov (1920-1992) wrote detective stories as well as well as SF (and non-fiction popular science books), and the two main characters of this story - a human investigator and his robot sidekick - also featured in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. The robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, presents investigator Lije Bailey with an impossible problem: Two scientists, accompanied by their robot assistants, are travelling in a starship to a conference in another system. Each scientist accuses the other of stealing a new idea and presenting it as their own. Their robots back them up. An answer is needed before the start of the conference, but it is impossible to determine which human (or robot) is telling the truth. The answer was obtained by a neat piece of psychological reasoning - one of those mysteries which has a satisfying "yes, of course!" ending.

The Flying Eye by Jacques Futrelle (1912). A generation or two older than the other authors in this collection, Futrelle (1875-1912) focused mainly on mysteries to be solved in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. His death at such a young age was exotic; he went down with the Titanic. In this story, a pair of investigators are mystified by an image of a huge eye which keeps appearing and disappearing over an isolated pond. The investigators explore all kinds of more or less likely explanations but are even more incredulous when the see a man dropping from nowhere into the pond, then slowly rising up into the sky before vanishing again. The immediate mystery is soon (improbably) explained, but that isn't the end of the story.

Nonentity by E. C. Tubb (1955). Tubb (1919-2010) is best known for his 32-volume Earl Dumarest series, beginning with The Winds of Gath (which I feel I probably ought to read sometime -  at least the first volume!). As well as SF, he wrote a few straight detective stories and some combinations of the two, as in this story. Following a disaster in space, an assorted group of survivors has escaped in a "lifeshell" - an unpowered pod with enough food, water and air to last until rescue - usually - but the lifeshell is overcrowded and help seems certain to arrive too late. The survivors are reluctant to face up to their options, but then the lights fail and people start to die, one after the other. 

Death of a Telepath by George Chailey (1959). This author is known only for this one published story plus a non-fiction article. In a world in which telepaths are common (if very unpopular), committing crimes is a risky business - and murdering a telepath would seem to be impossible. So when a detective investigates the death of a telepath on a two-man spacecraft, he is initially inclined to accept the explanation of suicide. But this doesn't seem to accord with the evidence.

Murder, 1986 by P. D. James (1970). The author (1920-2014) was a highly regarded specialist crime writer, best known for her Inspector Dalgliesh series. She also wrote a few SF stories including this one, which is coincidentally topical as it is set in a future in which humanity's survival is threatened by a virus. Carriers of the disease are subject to draconican laws and forced to live in colonies away from the Normals. When a detective discovers the body of a young female Carrier who has clearly been murdered (not considered a major crime), he decides to investigate despite attempts by senior officers to prevent him. The outcome is the kind of surprise which makes the reader want to go back and re-read the story from the beginning in the light of the final revelations.

Apple by Anne McCaffrey (1969). Anne McCaffrey is too well known to need introducing, especially as another of her stories was only recently reviewed here. The background to this story is reminiscent of the X-Men films: a small minority of 'Talents' - humans with superpowers - live in an uneasy relationship with the rest of humanity, tolerated because they provide specialist services such as security and criminal investigations. This only works if the Talents can be trusted to manage themselves to ensure that they pose no threat to humanity, so there is great alarm when an impossible crime takes place - and the hunt is on for a wild Talent.

The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965). DeFord (1885-1975) was an author who did not just write SFF and crime stories but also true crime studies. In this story, time travel has been invented and the opportunity to take short trips back in time is available - at a high price. Our hero is very unhappily married to an appalling woman he cannot get rid of, so he spots the opportunity to avoid his fate by ensuring that his wife is never born. Everything is perfectly planned and executed, but with an unexpected result.

I enjoyed these stories - particularly the ones by Asimov, Russell and McCaffrey - but the outstanding tale in terms of plot, characterisation and writing quality has to be that by P.D. James.