Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Arthur B. Reeve's The Silent Bullet

American mystery fiction author Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) is sometimes regarded as the creator of the first scientific detective, Craig Kennedy. He wasn’t really the first but he was a pioneer of that sub-genre. The Silent Bullet was his first short story collection, published in 1911.

Craig Kennedy is a professor of chemistry who takes a keen interest in crime. He is exasperated not only by the non-scientific approach still adopted by the police but also by the non-scientific approach of the average criminal! Science and technology have the potential to revolutionise both crime and crime-fighting. Eventually he succumbs to temptation and starts helping the police on cases in which his knowledge is likely to be useful. It isn’t long before Kennedy finds himself becoming a rather busy amateur detective.

Inevitable Reeve’s work gets compared to R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories. The similarities are obvious but there are some major differences as well. Dr Thorndyke is both a physician and a lawyer. His methods as a detective are what you would expect given his training - he relies on absolutely meticulous investigations of crime scenes and to a great extent on careful post-mortem examinations and pathology tests. The tools of his trade are microscopes and scalpels. Craig Kennedy is more inclined to see the big picture and to form elaborate theories which he then proceeds to test. And Kennedy loves gadgets. He has a vast collection of wondrous and ingenious devices which he employs in his investigations. Most of them are powered by electricity. It’s no fun having a gadget unless it works by electricity!

Reeve’s stories are often more outlandish than Freeman’s but Craig Kennedy’s gadgets are usually scientific plausible. Many of them actually existed at the time, or were theoretical possibilities about to become actualities. For example Kennedy uses an early version of a lie detector test in several cases. Reeve was not interested in totally imaginary technologies. That’s not to say that the science is always absolutely sound in his stories but his intention was certainly to remain within the realm of the possible. Reeve was very enthusiastic about science and that enthusiasm comes through very strongly in his stories. At times there’s a Gee Whizz tone that you certainly don’t find in Freeman.

In the title story Professor Kennedy has to solve the murder of a financier. The man was shot in a crowded office but no-one heard the shot and no-one saw a gun discharged. The murdered man was at the centre of some rather tortuous financial dealings and some complicated romantic entanglements. Kennedy solves the mystery by revealing no less than four startling advances in scientific detection, all in the space of a single short story! It’s a tour-de-force and they’re all pretty plausible scientifically. This is great stuff.

The Scientific Cracksman is amusing for the motive of the criminal and for Kennedy’s attitude towards it. A wealthy industrialist is found dead. His safe has been opened but nothing has been stolen? Or at least that’s how things appear. Again Kennedy relies on the latest scientific gizmos and the very latest methods.

Kennedy speculates about the kinds of murder methods that could be used by criminals if they made an effort to keep up with the times and in The Bacteriological Detective he finds himself up against just such a criminal. Death by natural causes can in fact be murder. This is a clever little story.

The Deadly Tube is great fun. A famous society beauty is suing a doctor who has been treating with with X-rays. She claims that the treatment has ruined her looks. Dr Gregory is puzzled by this because he is well aware of the dangers of X-rays and he is obsessively cautious in his methods. Craig Kennedy is convinced that Dr Gregory could not have been at fault but he still has to deal with the fact that the damage to the woman’s skin tissues was caused by X-rays.

How do you go about exposing a phony medium? There are many way of proceeding but Craig Kennedy’s is the most original - in The Seismograph Adventure he uses a seismograph. There’s also some very entertaining stuff about poisons and inks. An excellent story.

The Diamond Maker is a rather bland story. A jeweller dies, apparently of pneumonia, but the insurance company that insured his life is not entirely happy about the circumstances especially in the light of the spectacular robbery of the man’s safe. Before he died the jeweller was talking in his delirium of an immense fortune, far in excess of the value of the diamonds in his safe. The solution to this one is just a bit too obvious.

The Azure Ring is another of the weaker stories, about the mysterious deaths of two young people who were about to be married. It’s one of those “poisoning by an unknown poison” stories but not a terribly inspired example of the breed.

“Spontaneous Combustion” deals, obviously, with a case of suspected spontaneous human combustion. It also deals with a family dispute and a missing will. Kennedy makes use of a newly discovered scientific technique to solve this mystery. It’s a pretty decent story.

The Terror in the Air is one of my favourite stories in this collection. An inventor/aviator named Norton is trying to win the Brooks Prize, the prize being for anyone who can bring an aircraft to a complete standstill in the air for five minutes. Norton thinks he can do it by means of a gyroscope but so far his attempts have led to the deaths of two pilots. 

Craig Kennedy suspects that the fatal flying mishaps may not have been quite so accidental. In fact, as you’d expect, there’s a nefarious plot behind it all and it’s a splendid excuse for all manner of 1911-era technological wizardry to be displayed. This was a time  when things like radio and aviation were in their infancy and were terribly terribly exciting. Reeve manages to make this story as thrilling today as it was in 1911.

The Black Hand pits Kennedy against Italian gangs in New York. They have kidnapped the daughter of a famous tenor. The Black Hand gangs are ruthless and efficient and few people have the courage to stand up to them but Craig Kennedy has technology on his side. This story is most notable for the light it sheds on the lives of Italian immigrants in New York at the beginning of the 20th century and on the Italian criminal underworld.

The Artificial Paradise deals with South American revolutionaries, psychedelic drugs (specifically mescal which was only just becoming known to science at the time) and a startling medical technique that allows Kennedy to solve the case in a very unexpected way. This is a rather disappointing and far-fetched tale with no real mystery in it.

The Steel Door involves a gambling hell in London. There’s no mystery in this one at all. The one problem facing Craig Kennedy is how to help the police by finding a way to get through the massive steel door that protects the gambling club. There’s a bit of a sub-plot about a young man headed for ruin through his passion for roulette. Not a very interesting story.

This is an uneven collection but the good stories certainly outnumber the not-so-good ones. Compared to the other scientific detective stories of the same era Reeve’s Craig Kennedy stories have a distinctive flavour of their own. Some of them stretch scientific  credibility while others are completely plausible but they all share a sense of excitement about the possibilities opened up by science and technology. The mysteries themselves are generally unremarkable and fairly obvious and they’re definitely not fair-play (fair play being a concept that would not be generally embraced for at least another decade). On the other hand the weird and wonderful and incredibly varied gadgets  that Kennedy uses provide a great deal of entertainment and the outlandishness of the best of the stories is great fun. 

This collection that might well be enjoyed as much by science fiction fans as mystery fans and devotees of steampunk might enjoy them as well. I found them to be on the whole very entertaining. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, I'd never heard of this. I looked it up and, as it's from 1911, it's available on Project Gutenberg

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