The Astronomical Body

"Impossible is a hell of a strong word, Doctor."
- Elijah Baley (Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, 1954)
John Russell Fearn was an incredible prolific British (pulp) author who dabbled in an array of genres, which encompassed science-fiction, westerns and detective stories, under a multitude of pennames – including "John Slate," "Thornton Ayre" and "Hugo Blayn." A large number of Fearn's work, under as many pseudonyms, were catalogued by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991). So it was only a matter of time before I got around to sampling some of his work.

In the early 1950s, Fearn wrote a brace of science-fiction mysteries, as by "Volsted Gridban," which are both listed as impossible crime novels. The Master Must Die (1953) and The Lonely Astronomer (1954) record the investigations of a scientific detective from the later part of the 22nd century. For some inexplicable reasons, I decided to go with the second and last novel in this short-lived series.

The Lonely Astronomer is set at the Metropolitan Observatory in London, England, which is the pride of British engineers from the year 2190: the site occupied by the observatory "was over five square miles in area" and in the center of the "park-like space" there's a base of a mighty, two-mile high column – "upon the top of which the Observatory was poised." It's a marvel of futuristic design, but the person presiding over this astronomical "crow's nest" is the detestable Dr. Henry Brunner.

Dr. Brunner is as talented as an astronomer as he's at making enemies and supplied everyone around him with ample ammunition to justify their dislike for him.

He "courted" his twenty-five-year old spectrographic assistant, Monica Adley, with all the charm of a medieval robber baron, which did not go over well with her love-interest, David Calhoun, who's an assistant astronomer. There's an actual alien working for the Observatory, Sasmo of Procyon, who arrived on Earth after an "awful voyage across the endless endlessness of space" that lasted twenty-seven generations, but Brunner disrespectfully scoffed at the knowledge and skill being brought to the table by this being from the stars. Finally, there's the janitor and general factotum of the place, simply known as Joe, who owns a peculiar kind of pet: Loony, the Martian gossamer-spider.

The rainbow-hued spiders were created by settler scientists "in a specially cultivated forest environment under colossal pressurized domes" on the Martian surface. They're large, extremely intelligent creatures that are "as frail as a puffball" and "completely non-poisonous," who spend most of their time spinning intricately woven webs that "glitter and flowed like phantasmal rainbows," but Brunner had ordered its destruction – because it roamed around.

So it hardly comes as a shock when Joe finds Brunner inside the Observatory with an ugly gash across his forehead and strangulation marks on his throat.

The first Adam Quirke SF-mystery
The police have a special interest in Calhoun and Sasmo as potential suspects, but the problem is that nobody appears to have had an opportunity to commit the murder and "got away without being seen by the janitor." Joe has been ruled out as a suspect "by his age and general feebleness compared to the strength of Brunner."

Enter Adam Quirke: a heavyset, six-feet-nine giant of a man with a round face and a white mane, but this physically overawing man is prone to constant fits of violent and prolonged laughter, which became really annoying after only a short period. Just as annoying as referring to his secretary as "light of my life," which only served to pad out this already very short novel. Quirke is easily one of the most annoying detectives I've ever come across.

Thankfully, those quirks began to subside as soon as Quirke decided to act as a proper detective and the double-pronged solution he proffered to the death of Dr. Brunner was vivid and original – even though it was deeply engrained in the science-fiction genre.

I figured out the direct cause of the injuries, but the indirect cause was something different altogether. It's what made me close the book without the feeling of having wasted my time, which is a fear I had several times while reading the book, because The Lonely Astronomer has its fair share of flaws: one aspect of the solution, concerning the victim, was not properly hinted at, spiders are referred to as insects and than there is Quirke's annoying mannerisms.

It's interesting to note that our time is more advanced in some aspects than Fearn's imagination of the far-flung future of 2191: they have colonized Mars and dabbled in genetic manipulation, but the only information that can be drawn from blood is to which group it belongs and a device similar to our CAT-scan has only recently been invented – which is called (no joke) "The Penetrator." Somehow, that did not throw Quirke in a fit of laughter.

So, The Lonely Astronomer is not a classic of its kind, but it’s an interesting specimen and another example showing The Caves of Steel (1954) by Isaac Asimov was not the first of its kind. Something I discovered when I read Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet (1942). By the way, I was inspired to bump this up my to-be-read list by a review of The Naked Sun (1957) on Ho-Ling's blog. You might find it a reason to read it, if you haven't done so already.

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to my review of Robin Forsythe's The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933), which I posted yesterday. I might return to Forsythe for my next review, because I really enjoyed my introduction to his work. So, once again, stay glued to that screen!


  1. I read this a couple of years ago. (Surprise! Well, not really.) Didn't really like it and I share your opinion of Adam Quirke. My notes are very negative and snarky. I have a quip about Fearn's lack of arachnid knowledge and calling a spider non-poisonous rather non-venomous. This is why I never wrote about it back in 2013 when I found a cheap copy of the Linford reprint on eBay. I also saw through some of the puzzles presented because as with Fearn's other non-SF impossible mysteries he is not very good at hiding his clues.

    Of his other detective novels I think Thy Arm Alone under his "John Slate" pseudonym is the best. It was the first Fearn book I read and nothing I've read since has come anywhere near it in terms of ingenuity and originality. I've got quite a few of his books but can only read one every year or so. He's not a mystery writer I can binge on - reading one book right after the other even if most of them are under 150 pages.

    1. I'm afraid there's a lot to be negative or snarky about, but I really liked how the explanation to the impossible situation was structured. On the one hand, there were the direct injuries (gash and strangulation), which took its cue from an old locked room trick and the part you should be able to figure out. And then there's the other cause, which is firmly grounded in SF-territory. It was a good and original idea, but it probably deserved to be handled by a better writer.

      I agree that Fearn is not a writer who seems to lend himself for binge-reading, but I'll keep Thy Arm Alone in mind. You wrote a tantalizing review.

  2. The synthesis between the detective and science fiction genres has an interesting history. The first point to note is that although both genres developed from multiple influences, a primary influence they both share is that they developed from the Gothic horror novel, which in turn influenced Poe. The detective line of descent from Poe is obvious, but Poe also wrote a number of science-influenced stories (like The Balloon Hoax) which also influenced Jules Verne in decisively creating the science fiction genre.

    The two genres started to synthesize with the coming of Freeman's scientific detective, Dr. Thorndyke. (Sherlock Holmes talks a good scientific game, but rarely or never uses real science in crime detection.)(Thorndyke had a few precursors, but they were relatively unimportant.) After that came The Achievements of Luther Trant of Balmer and MacHarg, which used the instrumentalities of psychology for crime detection. Soon after, Arthur B. Reeve commenced the Craig Kennedy series, which drew on a wide range of scientific devices, and sometimes crossed the boundary into science fiction, as when he predicted the kidney dialysis machine.

    However, there is an important point here which is that science fiction mysteries appear to have been only rarely fair play mysteries. Usually, since the stories turned on esoteric scientific facts and instrumentalities, there was no way for the reader to guess the outcome before hand. Rather science fiction mysteries tended to occur in the framework of either the specialized scientific detective story, or as thrillers, or as police procedurals. As to why the fair play mystery appears so infrequently in science fiction mysteries, I would offer two suggestions:
    First, it might have been due to a matter of timing. The Golden Age of the fair play mystery was from about 1920 to the early 1940s, but the Golden Age Of science fiction is generally considered to be about the period from 1939 to 1949. So as the detective golden age was winding down, the science fiction golden age was starting up, and it missed the fair play age.

    Secondly, the thriller/police procedural mode does seem to suit science fiction better. Eric Frank Russell did a lot of excellent work in this area: Sinister Barrier, Dreadful Sanctuary and Call Him Dead are all essentially detective novels, but they operate more in the thriller mode. He wrote an excellent science fiction police procedural "Legwork."

    Part of the problem is that science fiction stories tend to have a lot of forward movement to their plots as they explore their fictional worlds. Golden Age fair play stories tend to consist of a lot of people standing around talking a lot, interspersed with stumbling over dead bodies. Asimov's style, on the other hand, also mainly consists of people standing around talking; he would rather have people stand around talking about a space battle rather than portraying the battle at the scene of the action. As a result, his style fits in well with golden age type plots.

    I think you are right about Wellman's Devil's Planet as being a fair play mystery; it has a lot of people standing around talking, even though the action is set on Mars. Interestingly, it also has some robots. However, it appeared in Startling Stories in January 1942, so it fits in at the tail end of the detective golden age.

    I am aware of two good essays on the science fiction mystery:
    1. Robert E. Briney, "Death Rays, Demons, and Worms Unknown to Science," an essay in the book The Mystery Story, ed. by John Ball (Penguin, 1978).
    2. Sam Moskowitz, "From Sherlock to Spaceships," an essay in his book Strange Horizons (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976).

    1. Thanks for all this info and reading suggestions, Anon! It's much appreciated.

      I had no idea the mystery and science-fiction genres were actually related by blood. I knew there was an overlapping at the edges, were writers with a foot in both fields blended the genres, but no idea the branches were connected to the same family tree. A family tree that finds Poe at its roots! Very interesting.

      I'm not entirely flattered by your description of Golden Age mysteries as "a lot of people standing around talking a lot," but, I have to admit, it completely explains how James Hogan's Inherit the Stars worked as both a detective story and a pure science-fiction novel. It completely makes sense, because that's basically what it was: a lot of scientists standing around a skeleton and talking a lot. It's still brilliant as hell, but that's what it was.

      Once again, thanks for the info, Anon!

    2. And don't forget that Conan Doyle wrote science fiction.

  3. There is nothing wrong with people standing around and talking. That is what Plato's Dialogues are. What matters is whether they have anything interesting to say. The problem for the fair play mystery is that the central action that drives the plot has already occurred at the start of the book (very often) and the identity of the central actor is hidden. By its nature that leaves the characters without much else to do but talk about it. This is a structural problem which many Golden Age writers handled very skillfully. The thriller, on the other hand is mainly action. This is why Msgr. Knox distinguished the thriller and the fair play mystery with the famous "no Chinamen" rule.

    1. I knew from which direction you were coming from, but I find anything less than religious-like deference for the detective story blasphemous and triggering. ;-)

      But in all serious, you're right. Look at Columbo: it shows the central action (murder) and does not hide the identity of the central actor (murderer), but is still pretty much a lot of people standing around and talking a lot.