Ghost in the Light

"...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!


  1. TomCat - I wouldn't say that you guys are "the only [ones] who occasionally review these science-fiction mysteries." For the past couple of years we've also been focusing occasionally on SFnal mysteries at ONTOS:


    Just the other day, for instance, we dealt with Poul Anderson's "The Martian Crown Jewels," a classic Sherlock Holmes pastiche:


    Congrats on a high-quality weblog - worth stopping by every time.

    1. I should've known someone would turn up to point out they've reviewed some science-fiction mysteries as well. You are, of course, correct. But, for some reason, I only thought of the blogs mentioned. Mea culpa, mea culpa!

  2. With so many blogs to keep track of, it's too easy to overlook some of them. Fact is, I've fallen behind keeping up with them myself. I have a theory: When we look back on this period of Internet history a few years from now, we'll come to regard it as the Golden Age of Mystery Weblogging. It's sad, though, that an alarming number of quality blogs, the ones with substantial content, have folded up recently; they'll be greatly missed.

    1. You're probably right, Mike. I'm sure we'll look back at this period as a Golden Age of Mystery Blogs, but, when we make up the balance, I'll also hope we can say it actually helped the current Renaissance Era. Who knows what will spring from these blogs in the next decade. My inspiration for the blog came from all the website, message boards, mailing lists and the rare blog (Xavier and Ho-Ling) I read in the 2000s, which are mostly gone or inactive now.

      And which quality blogs have recently folded?

  3. Take a look at your "Insightful Informants" list just to the right—and a fine list it is. I may be wrong, but I view those blogs on it that haven't done any posting for at least a couple of months as having "folded"—and that's a shame, since they were so informative, as well as entertaining.

    "we can say it actually helped the current Renaissance Era": Exactly; the resurgence of interest in Golden Age mysteries signaled by the increase in book sales (dead tree and electronic) probably wouldn't have happened in the pre-Internet era. Anyone chronicling these developments would do well to keep that in mind.

    1. Some of the blogs in the middle and end of the list have always been irregularly updated (e.g. A Perfect Locked Room and The Corpse Steps Out), but most of the important blogs appear to be still around. The biggest lost in this regard is still Patrick (At the Scene of the Crime) who might still return one day. But, yes, I might have to trim the very bottom of the list.

      I pointed out in the past how the growing accessibility to the internet in the past twenty-some years coincided with a growing interest in classic mysteries. It started in early 2000s (and perhaps the late 90s) with small, independent publishers and secondhand book dealers setting up shop on the digital highway, which resulted in a slow drip of reprints, to the deluge of reprints starting in the 2010s – which when most of started blogging. So I hope we turn out to have been, somewhat, useful during this second phase.

    2. I'm still alive dang it (though doubt that I'm "informative" or "entertaining" except in the way one finds a train wreck informative on what not to do, and entertaining in the carnage).

      Oddly enough I have been reviewing a decent amount, it just hasn't been mystery novels. All that other reviewing has helped me to write reviews faster and without getting bogged down in petty crap, so who knows? :P (My atrocious reading speed doesn't help matters, I have no idea how you people do it.) But eh, I have new material to get through, and some other Hoch collections if all else fails. :P

      ----The Dark One

    3. We will be awaiting your return, Dark One.


      Well, that sounded very Lovecraftian.