Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shooting Star: Murder from the Moon [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Robert Bloch
Robert Bloch holds an unusual position in genre fiction in that he wrote for both the science fiction and mystery magazines equally well. (Fredric Brown and Anthony Boucher also come to mind.) This odd fusion finds the author writing SF mysteries as well as mysteries with a tinge of SF. Let’s look at two stories in question: “Murder From the Moon” (Amazing Stories, November 1942) and the Ace Double Noir novel, Shooting Star (1958).

I’ve written before about Isaac Asimov’s complaint that SF mysteries prior to his Caves of Steel (1954) were of poor quality because they don’t play fair. The author hides some element the reader could not know or simply pulls out the SF equivalent of a magic wand and solves the case. I suppose that includes “Murder From the Moon” (along with Edmond Hamilton’s “Murder in the Void,” Robert Leslie Bellem’s “Robots Can’t Lie,” Mickey Spillane’s “The Veiled Lady,” and others). Bloch is in good company. Let’s see if Asimov is correct.

“Murder From the Moon” centers around the visit of a man from our satellite, and the long-standing feud between Stephen Bennet and Professor Champion. Avery Bennet, Stephen’s father, had gone to the Moon and made claims of alien life, which Champion denied. Avery Bennet left on a second expedition but never returned. With the visitor’s coming, it looks like vindication is at hand. After a publicity photo with four scientists shaking all of the moon man’s multiple hands, the Lunarian says he is cold. Someone gets the Lunarian a cup of hot chocolate. He drops dead, crying, “Cold, so cold!” Bill Stone, a reporter, wants to tell the world, but is persuaded to hold on and solve the mystery.

While an investigation is begun we learn more about Stephen Bennet, his Solar Foundation, Lila Valery (Bennet’s girlfriend), and his life-long servant, Changara Dass (a cliché Hindu valet right out of Aurelius Smith). Dass manages the foundation, keeping the environment at a steady 80 degrees Farenheit. We hear that Bennet lives at the foundation like a recluse, for he was born in space and after the ridicule of his father’s memory, feels no warmth for his fellow humans.

An autopsy is performed on the dead Lunarian by Changara Dass. He calls everyone together because he has made an important discovery, but when they arrive they find him strangled to death. The marks on his throat indicate it was done by a moon man, but the visitor is clearly dead, his arm having been cut off. Bill Stone investigates the crime scene, knowing that when the police arrive his access to the evidence will be limited. He finds a single clue, a cup containing something very cold. He has solved the mystery.

Next Stone gets Stephen Bennet alone, so he can question him. The man most likely to suppress the moon visit, the obvious suspect, is Dr. Champion. But the killer turns out to be Stephen Bennet, who wants to sneak off with his girl and take the alien’s ship back to the Moon. Stone accuses Bennet of the two murders. Bennet begins to wrestles with the reporter. While his hands are locked in battle, a second set of hands reveal themselves and clutch Bill Stone’s throat – clawed Lunarian hands! Stone defeats and kills Bennet with the cup of coldness, ordinary dry ice. After Bennet dies, the reporter explains to Lila that the man born in space was half Lunarian and his secret would have been revealed by the visitor. Bennet had spiked the hot chocolate with dry ice to kill him. Dass was killed because he was about to reveal Bennet’s secret. The killer secretly planned to take Lila to the Moon where he would rule over his Lunarian brethen like a king.

Isaac Asimov’s complaint was that science fiction mysteries did not play fair. And I think Robert Bloch’s story should be included amongst these types of stories. If we knew all the facts about Lunarians, we would have figured out the killer pretty quick. In an Asimovian SF mystery, we would know all about the Lunarians, their physiology and such, and still would not know who the killer was. Bloch has not done this, though I don’t think he particularly cared in this case. He wasn’t writing for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, but for Ray Palmer’s Amazing Stories. Bloch certainly was able to follow the rules as he did in novels like The Scarf (1947) and in the 1950s and 1960s stories for EQMM.

Instead, Bloch is interested in “the reveal” – as he would be in his most famous work, Psycho (1959), when we learn Norman Bates is really the voice of his dead, cruel mother. The pay off is sensation – not a logical puzzle. The reveal that Stephen Bennet has a second set of arms is meant to be the pay off, as a horror writer might do it. (A possible inspiration for the idea is Clifford Ball’s “Thief of Forthe” (Weird Tales, July 1937), in which the wizard Karlk escapes from being tied up because he has a second set of weird arms. Bloch was certainly familiar with the story as his tale “The Creeper in the Crypt” is in the same issue. Bloch’s use of the idea is much more dramatic, being part of a fight scene.

I mention Shooting Star here merely as a delicious aside. It has no science fiction ideas in it, nor is it placed at an SF convention like Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue (1942). Instead, Bloch peppers it with references from the world of SF. The main character is a one-eyed literary agent, Mark Clayburn. He begins his day:
I went over to the desk and sat down. This was no time to feel sorry for myself. Save that for tonight. Right now I had work to do: a science-fiction yarn to send to Boucher, for a client; another to try on a confessions mag, and a true-detective job to revise.
The plot and style of the novel is pulp noir with Clayburn investigating the murder of a film star for an old friend who has bought up the cowboy star’s run of old Westerns. Later, when another actor is murdered, the undertaker is named Hamilton Brackett. He could have been named anything but Bloch is leaving a treat for two dear friends, the husband and wife team of SF writers, Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett. None of this comes close to a SF mystery, but it is great for fans of both genres. Bloch’s personal insight into Hollywood, agents, and the writing game are all spice to what is a decent mystery. This is why Hardcase Crime have reprinted it along with Spiderweb, another short novel, as part of their noir series.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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