"Mystery and science fiction have always had one oddity in common: each has devoted addicts who refuse to read any other kind of fiction. I hope there will be readers of this book who never before read any science fiction, and other readers who never before read any crime stories. And I hope, and believe, that both will find out to their pleasure how much they have been missing."- Miriam Allen DeFord (from the introduction of Space, Time and Crime)
Over the past few years, I have heard several people suggest that the advent of revolutionary new technology and forensic science has driven the final nail in the coffin of the classic whodunit – which always struck me as a narrow-minded view of things. As if we are the first generation of humans to witness a rapidly changing world due to technological and scientific advancement. Back then, radio and telephone made the world a lot smaller, much in the same way as the internet has done for us today, and DNA shouldn't be any more of an obstacle, for a talented mystery writer anyway, as fingerprints did for the great pioneers of the genre.
But this shallow and near-sighted argument was already refuted long before it was made, and the person who shattered it to smithereens was science-fiction legend, Isaac Asimov, who published a groundbreaking detective novel, Caves of Steel (1954), that intertwined a formal detective story with a visionary image of the future – and it worked, flawlessly!
In spite of being set in the distant future, which has the advantage of super advanced technology, it managed to come up with a brilliant and perfectly fair solution and even offers several equally neat false solutions in the process.
The anthology Space, Time and Crime (1964) tries to continue that tradition, but, unfortunately, it suffers from nearly every flaw a short story collection can have: the selection of stories are very uneven in quality, ranging from quite good to absolutely bland, and some of the stories really make you scratch your head and ponder why they were included into the book. However, none of the stories are really bad, and it makes for a nice, experimental read, but overall it holds more interest for a SF than a mystery fan.
Here's a complete overview of all fourteen stories:
Crisis, 1999 by Fredric Brown
This tale was published at the tail end of the golden era of the detective story, 1949, and is the only entry in this collection that represents that particular period in literary history. The story itself is set 50 years into the future, 1999, and describes an advanced, but troubled, civilization – whose professional criminals are literarily getting away with murder by beating the lie detector. It's fortunate for that society that great detectives haven't gone the way of the dinosaurs, and Bela Joad descents into the underworld to undrape what covers up all these seemingly undetectable lies, but instead finds a method to root-out criminal behavior once and for all. The story is not without interest, but more so as a classic science-fiction yarn than as a clever detective story – as the proposed solution would've never been accepted in a straightforward mystery.
Fredric Brown is also the author of several detective novels and short stories, including the phantasmagorial Night of the Jabberwock (1951) and the nightmarish locked room mystery, "The Spherical Ghoul" (1943). Both highly recommended.
Criminal Negligence by K. Francis McComas
This is not so much a mystery or a SF story as it is a morality play, in which radioactive dust clouds are smothering the Earths surface – making the planet completely uninhabitable in just a matter of days. Plans to launch rockets and colonize Mars are in full swing, but what to do what with a prison full of murderers, thieves and rapists? This poses an interesting moral dilemma, however, the crime and futuristic elements are incidental and this story really feels off in this collection. Not bad though.
The Talking Stone by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was the acknowledged master of blending the formal detective story with the science fiction yarn, and in this story his Earth-bound space-sleuth, Wendell Urth, has to decipher the dying mutterings of an alien creature to determine the location of an asteroid were radioactive ores were illegally mined by his captors. This is the first good, solid detective story of the collection that perfectly incorporates elements from both genres.
Wendell Urth also appeared in a score of other stories, which are part of the collection Asimov's Mysteries (1968) – and also contains several standalones, including the terrific "Obituary."
The Past and Its Dead People by R. Bretnor
The odd-one-out of this anthology, in which no aliens, time travelers or any advanced technology of any kind appears, but concentrates on an elderly woman who enjoys prying into other people's private lives and pasts – with fatal consequences. This is a pretty mundane crime story and its inclusion in this book is the most baffling problem the story has to offer to crime buffs like me. Good title, though!
The Adventure of the Snitch in Time by August Derleth and Mack Reynolds
The Solar Pons and Dr. Paker stories were, and probably still are, among the most successful and recognizable pastiches inspired by the Sherlock Holmes canon, and Derleth and Pons even won an audience of their own. It's therefore that my cheeks flush crimson as I confess that this is my first encounter with the Pread Street detective, and it was a blast! The story opens with Pons and Parker receiving a visitor from a parallel universe, who wants to consult him in the hope of finding answer on how to stop Moriarty from pillaging alternatives versions of Earth – as he hops in-and-out of the space-time continuum.
There are some great bits and pieces in the stories, like when their visitor explains the concept of alternate worlds in which, for example, Napoleon was never born or one where Pons and Parker are only story book characters – not to mention a great throw away reference to Perry Mason. A very amusing story which will not fail to entertain fans of both genres.
Note that Mack Reynolds also wrote The Case of the Little Green Men (1951), in which aliens apparently commit a series of seemingly impossible murders by throwing SF fans from flying saucers and shooting at them with heat rays. IMHO better than Anthony Boucher's Rocket to the Morgue (1942).
The Eyes Have It by James McKimmey
The President of the Superior Council, a small group of men appointed to act as the nucleus of governmental rule on Mars, tries to figure out who in his cabinet has been leaking secret information to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet – and who might be even a Martian himself. The story has its flaws, like the silly insistence of the president to extinguish the candles with his antique gun before the identity of the spy is brought to light, and the predictable twist ending should make this an average story at best, however, this is one of those tales you just can't help liking – in spite of all its flaws.
Public Eye by Anthony Boucher
The titular public eyes are the futuristic equivalent of the 20th century private eyes, and the perplexing problem one of them is facing is how to obtain conclusive proof on how a high profile lawyer managed to kill his brother, when a fingerprint clearly places him on the lunar surface at the time of the murder. This is an inverted mystery only solvable by obliterating a cast-iron alibi. The detective also poses a challenge to the reader, but I'm not entirely sure if the solution is really fair – as it hinges on a lot of coincidences, however, this also being a science-fiction story, and all, it seems to be an acceptable answer... I guess.
Note that Boucher predicts DNA, here labeled as serology, to identify criminals based on biological evidence they've left behind.
The Innocent Arrival by Poul and Karen Anderson
An unexciting story of a Martian delegate visiting our home planet, who, upon his arrival, is snatched up by a couple of conmen, but, of course, everything blows up in their face. It' s a readable enough story, but you won't miss out on much if you skip it.
Third Offense by Frederik Pohl
A short-short story with a sort of dystopian flavor, that strips time traveling of all its romantic trapping and employs it as a tool of punishment – e.g. sending the protagonist to a concentration camp. I really wonder why this story, among others in this collection, was picked for a book that was also supposed to introduce detective stories to SF readers.
Try and Change the Past by Fritz Leiber
Another time travel story with a criminal undertone to it, in which a sponger tries to patch-up his devastated life, but altering the flow of time isn't as easy as it may seem. Boucher and Asimov wrote better treatments of this theme.
Rope's End by Miriam Allen DeFord
This is, for me, the standout story of the book, in which a Terran (i.e. earthling) accidentally kills an Agretian with his car and according to local law, he's sentenced to wearing an iron-like, irremovable rope around his neck for the duration of 20 years, and every year the rope is shortened – until it strangles him at the end of the second decade of his sentence. A top-notch story with a great premise and a neat ending.
Or the Grasses Grow by Avram Davidson
A story involving Indian mysticism, but I wouldn't qualify it as either a detective or a science-fiction story.
Final note: this is probably not my best review, but that's because at the moment I'm doing a hundred things at the same time, and my concontration is a bit shot – so forgive any typos and lazy writing. I will do better next time.