"...there is evil everywhere under the sun."- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, 1941)
During the 1950s, the celebrated and incredibly prolific science-fiction author, Isaac Asimov, wrote "a series of six derring-do novels" about the ace investigator of the Council of Science, David "Lucky" Starr, which is a gig that brought him to every world in our Solar System – all of them colonized and inhabited by humans. As they should be!
The stories fall into the category of juvenile fiction and were initially published under a pseudonym, "Paul French," but the name was dropped when plans for a television series fell through. So the series always impressed me as an action/adventure stories in a science-fiction surrounding, but, according to Mike Grost, there's one Lucky Starr title offering "a fully fair play mystery." One that has clues and "a dying message delivered by a non-human character," which should give the observant reader a couple of strong hints as to who the culprit is. So how could I possibly resist?
Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956) is the third book in the series and brings David "Lucky" Starr and his small, Martian-born sidekick, John Bigman Jones, to the smallest and innermost planet of the Solar System – a two-faced celestial body called Mercury. Since the planet is the next door neighbor of our Sun, it's not the most hospitable place for permanent human settlement. However, the planet had been mined in the past for precious metals, such as silver and platinum, and recently became the location of an expensive research project.
At the Solar Observatory at the Mercurial North Pole, they're testing a completely new branch of science, called Sub-etheric Optics, which would allow them to intercept sunlight, guide it through hyperspace, and spread it evenly over the Earth – effectively giving them full control over the seasons. The "distribution of sunlight" would turn the Earth into a "conditioned paradise," but, recently, the project is plagued by a series of accidents. And they're taking a toll on the engineer in charge of Project Light, Scott Mindes.
Upon their arrival on Mercury, Mindes tells Lucky and Bigman there are "two-legged ghosts" on the Sun-side of the planet. Mindes has been scouting the Sun-side in a small rocket-scooter and observed "something that moved under the sun," something wearing a metallic spacesuit, who was seen standing still in the Sun for minutes at a time – as though it didn't care "a thing for the heat and radiation." Something that would be even ill-advised to do in a special insulated spacesuit.
So is the metal-clad ghost a fragment of the engineer's unstable imagination? An unknown Mercurian life-form? Or a saboteur from the Sirius star system?
After the opening chapters, the red-thread running through the plot splits into several sub-threads, which are still tightly connected to one another, but allows for some of the spotlight to be shown on Starr's right-hand man. Bigman got himself into a feud with Jonathan Urteil, a "roving investigator" for Senator Swenson, who stands in opposition to the Council of Science. A dispute that would eventually lead to a duel fought in low-gravity to make up for the weight difference between both men and resulted in a simple, but original, murder involving a gravity lock.
However, the murder is committed relatively late into the story and before they dueled in low-gravity, Bigman and Urteil had a close brush with death in the dark, disused mines that has a backstory that could be used as the premise of a science-fiction horror movie.
|Bigman and Lucky Starr|
The mines were slowly being abandoned fifty years ago, when the observatory was constructed, but the only thing that never died down were the stories the miners left behind for the astronomers. Stories about miners who were inexplicably frozen to death in the shafts. In those days, the mine shafts were fairly well heated and the power units of their suits functioned normally, but miners kept dying from an inexplicable and intense cold – eventually only entered into the main shafts in gangs. Bigman and Urteil stumble across the answer to "the freezing death in the mines," but the answer in question is pure science-fiction. However, the problem gave the book some nice and imaginative scenes.
Yes, I realize this is the third mystery in row about a mine, having previously reviewed Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930) and M.V. Carey's The Mystery of Death Trap Mine (1976), but was unaware Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury had a sub-plot about an old, abandoned mine when picking the book from the big pile.
Meanwhile, Lucky is exploring the Sun-side of Mercury with an ergometer and comes across the tall, metallic figure glanced by Mindes, but all I can really say about this plot-thread is that Asimov had really stopped hiding his identity at this point in the series. Something is revealed in these chapters that makes no bones about the fact that these books take place in the same universe as (some) of his other science-fiction/mystery stories. And this figure gives Starr an incomprehensible dying message, "er—er," when asked who was behind the acts of sabotage.
It's a rudimentary and simplistic dying message, but one that makes perfect sense when explained and beautifully complements the other clues pointing the murderer/saboteur. Asimov really showed his then brand new credentials as a part-time mystery novelist. Granted, the story does not translate into a genre-classic, or even one of Asimov's best hybrid mysteries, but the plot was sound and all of the plot-threads tied up satisfactorily. And the Mercurial backdrop was great.
Even though Asimov had to admit in his introduction, written for Fawcett editions, that "the advance of science can outdate even the most conscientious science-fiction," because his "astronomical descriptions are longer accurate in all respects." But that will only annoy readers who are well versed in astronomy, I suppose.
On a last, semi-related note: Ho-Ling, JJ and yours truly appear to be the only who occasionally review these science-fiction mysteries and thought a list of all these hybrid-mysteries, reviewed between the three of us, would be a nice way to pad out this blog-post.
My list: Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet (1942), David Reed's Murder in Space (1944), John Russell Fearn's The Lonely Astronomer (1954) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).
Short stories: Miriam Allen Deford's Space, Time and Crime (1964; anthology) Isaac Asimov's "Mirror Image"(1972) Timothy Zahn's "Red Thoughts at Morning" (1988).
Ho-Ling's list: Poul Anderson's After Doomsday (1962) Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), The Robots of Dawn (1983) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).
Short stories: Sonoda Shuuichirou's "Dakara dare mo inaku natta" ("And That's Why There Were None").
Audio drama: Hiroshi Mori's "Meikyuu hyakunen no suima" ("Labyrinth in the Arm of Morpheus").
JJ's list: Peter F. Hamilton's A Quantum Murder (1994), Adam Roberts' Jack Glass (2012) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).
As you can see, we all love Hogan's book!