So, I saw this headline over the weekend:
FBI admits it fudged forensic hair matches in nearly all criminal trials for decades
Seems like a pretty big deal. What’s more shocking – or not surprising at all – was this part:
“Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favoured prosecutors in more than 95 per cent of the 268 trials reviewed so far..”
95 percent of the “overstated forensic matches… favoured prosecutors.”
It seems like such old news now, the authorities breaking the rules, cheating, lying to get a conviction. The science being manipulated – for one side, in 95% of the cases.
And yet, in popular crime fiction science has become the star. Years ago someone said, “I’m not really into forensics, so I don’t watch much TV.” For a while there it seemed like every other show had people in white lab coats solving crimes. Pretty much always honestly, always above reproach. It was science and science doesn’t lie.
Did crime fiction show too much faith in accepting science? Or in underestimating the lengths people will go to get what they want? (This is a pet peeve of mine, how a lot of crime fiction actually sees the world as completely honest – except for the fact that everyone in a small town could be a calculating, cold-blooded murderer, capable of not only committing the most serious crimes but also of going about their lives as if nothing has happened.)
Another article I saw this week was from Cracked.com about why The X-Files won’t work today. Reason #4 was, “The attitudes towards the military are from a different era,” and pointed out that, “Americans now trust the military more than they do religious leaders, doctors, or teachers. Whether you think that's fair or a result of media brainwashing, the fact remains that repeatedly involving the military in a dark television conspiracy today would be about as popular with audiences as aliens disguised as and played by cute kittens that needed to be slaughtered at the end of every episode.”
Reason #2 was that “The conspiracies are all real now,” and said, “while there has never been a time when the U.S. government's actions were 100 percent peachy, the '90s was definitely a low point for shady government activity. Now, compare this to today. In the last 10 years, we've learned that the government has gone to war for no particular reason, tortured innocent people in secret prisons, and repeatedly executed American citizens without trial. In theory, this should give the new X-Files some great plot fuel, maybe even enough fuel to melt steel, I don't know, the truth is still out there about that. In reality, though, I think it works the opposite way. After the last 10 years or so, the mind-blowing conspiracy theories we saw revealed on the X-Files seem kind of ... quaint, like a kid finding out for the first time why their parents share a bed.”
There’s a joke in Canada that we’re always on the brink of, “Coming of age,” and we never really do (one of our prime ministers once said, “The 20th century belongs to Canada,” and we’ve now revised it to, “The 21st century,” and I expect we’ll keep revising that forever) and that Americans lose their innocence every thirty years.
So now, according to Cracked.com, the 1990’s were a low point for shady government activity. I think maybe a new X-Files will work really well as it seems we’re almost due for another loss of innocence.
BOB SHAW – A Wreath of Stars. Doubleday, Januray 1977, US, hardcover, Dell, paperback, April 1978. Baen Books, US, paperback, November 1987. First published in the UK: Victor Gollancz, hardcover, June 1976.
If you want science in your science fiction, albeit of the most sensationalist nature possible, look no further this rather dull and plodding tale of adventure. It starts well, with the invention of a special kind of glass that allows wearers to see in the dark — a discovery made just in time for the Earth’s population — but only those wearing glasses made of the material — to see a giant planet consisting solely of anti-neutrons bearing down on the planet. Or more precisely, to pass right through it.
And causing no damage as it does so. But no matter. As it happens it swerves off from its oncoming path at next to the last minute. No one knows why.
But what it does do is what the book is all about, beginning with the “ghosts” miners in an underground cavern in a post-colonial country in Africa begin to see at regular intervals. Turns out that an entire world made of anti-neutrino matter has existed within the Earth for perhaps billions of years, and only the onrush of the anti-neutrino planet has forced it out of its hiding place below the Earth’s surface.
What follows is one of those old-fashioned Sci-Fi movies from the 50s and 60s that the British did so well. Is there a means of making contact with the race of people living on this new world? Problem is, the rulers of the African country are despots of tin-hat generals who do not want the outside world barging in.
A fellow named Gil Snook (don’t snigger) is one of the outsiders on hand to give a hand to the lone scientist who learns early on what a find this new world within our world represents. There is a woman, too, who finds herself in the middle of all this, one both men find irresistible, one only wistfully, as the lady has a mind of her own, very much a creature of her time (the 1970s).
Unfortunately this is one of those novels that slows down as it goes. Dull and plodding, I said up above, but not in the beginning, I grant you, and it is great fun for a while. The novel ends in a most uninteresting fashion, however, leaving way for a sequel, perhaps, one that never happened, not with the characters spread out between two worlds, never to see other again, with no opportunity for the strange, unconventional but somewhat interesting love triangle to ever have any chance of a resolution. I regret that.
Nor if you were to ask me, do I know where the title comes from.
The private hunting lodge of the Kingery family was called "Hunting's End," and it was located out in the middle of the desolate Sand Hills of Nebraska. It was certainly no place to be stuck in the middle of a howling blizzard, with no way to get out or to communicate with the outside world. And there was the added complication that one member of the gathering at Hunting's End was a murderer - a person who, it was increasingly clear, would have no qualms about killing again.
Welcome to The Mystery of Hunting's End, by Mignon G. Eberhart, a tremendously popular and prolific writer of mysteries and romances whose career ran from the 1920s through the 1980s. The Mystery of Hunting's End, her third mystery, published in 1930, is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Five years ago, the owner of Hunting's End, Huber Kingery, was shot and killed at Hunting's End. The people who were present at the time, members of the Kingery family and other friends, managed to cover up the murder. But Kingery's daughter, Matil, wants the killer uncovered. So, on the fifth anniversary of the murder, she has invited all of the guests who were present at the time to come back to the lodge. Unknown to the guests, who rather grudgingly agree to return to the lodge, Matil also invites Lance O'Leary, a private detective, to join the guests. And, at O'Leary's suggestion, Matil hires Nurse Sarah Keate to look after Matil's elderly Aunt Lucy Kingery, an unpleasant old woman. O'Leary and Nurse Keate have worked together before - or, more accurately, have both been involved doing secret investigative work, usually at least nominally on the same side.
But on the very first day that everyone arrives at the lodge, a November blizzard blows in and completely isolates Hunting’s End from any possible contact with the outside world for several days. The people at the lodge very quickly come to realize that they are trapped there – and that, if Matil is correct in her insistence that her father was murdered, one of them must be the killer and will undoubtedly not hesitate to kill again to protect his or her secret.
Mignon Eberhart manages to give her readers a real sense of the near-panic and claustrophobia among the guests at Hunting’s End, all of whom know each other – but do not like each other. Some of this, to be sure, is in the “had I but known” viewpoint which we are offered repeatedly, but it’s also in the keen observations of our narrator, Nurse Keate.
Nurse Keate is certainly among the "Had I But Known" school of narrators, popularized by such writers as Mary Roberts Rinehart, and there's a great deal of narration along the line of, had I but known the horrors that awaited us behind those locked doors, I would never have gone there alone in the middle of the night. That sense of foreboding was a strong suit for Mignon G. Eberhart as well. Her characters are quite well-defined - and many of them are quite unpleasant. As our narrator tells us, at one point:
It was quite natural, I suppose…that the little cloaks of conventionalities to which we had clung so desperately during the preceding days and nights should finally and completely escape our clutches and vanish. I have never before or since that time seen men and women in their primitive, selfish state, and I never wish to again, for it is singularly disillusioning. Our treasured little masks of customs and behavior were gone entirely, and the sight of what was left was not pretty.
The Mystery of Hunting's End is an enjoyable and thought-provoking mystery. It's available in a trade paperback edition from Bison Books, with an introduction by editor, Jay Fultz, who notes that Eberhart was able to create "an atmosphere of all-encompassing dread, a polished style that barely puts the lid on the underlying barbarism of some social sophisticates." I think you'll like the book.
The 2015 Bingo Challenge
Continuing my participation in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge. under way at the My Reader's Block blog, The Mystery of Hunting's End is my entry for the square (second row, sixth column) calling for one book with a place in the title.
Thieves Fall Out
By Gore Vidal
Hard Case Crime, April 2015/$22.99
Reviewer: Kevin Burton Smith
Despite the obvious pen name (Really? “Gore”?), this guy Vidal looks to be a pretty promising pulp writers. Whatever happened to him?
* * * * *
Of course, Gore Vidal wasn’t a pseudonym, or at least not much of one — Gore was a family name, and anyway, when this potboiler came out way back in 1953, it was published by “Cameron Kay.” After the homophobic furor unleashed following the publication of The City and the Pillar (1948), the suddenly black-listed Vidal, struggling to make ends meet, pumped out four pseudonymous crime novels, three well-regarded novels featuring a PR flack turned pseudo-P.I. as “Edgar Box,” and this one, his first stab at crime fiction, proof perhaps that the cheese stands alone.
But hey, who doesn’t like cheese?
Literally just off the boat, manly American drifter Pete Wells finds himself down and out in post-war Cairo, ready to do “almost anything to make a dollar.” So he’s easy prey for a gang who rope him into their scheme to smuggle a priceless historical artifact, a necklace with a ruby as big as “a pigeon’s egg,” out of Egypt. Naturally, the thieves aren’t playing it totally straight but then Pete’s no boy scout either — he soon suspects he’s being played for a patsy.
The plot’s pretty much by the book, but the well-rendered setting (Vidal lived for a while in Egypt) is well used, and you’ve gotta love a multicultural gallery of rogues that includes a jaded but pip-pip British agent, a charming criminal mastermind right out of a Fleming novel, a piano-playing hunchback, a lusty French countess, a crooked Egyptian cop with the disconcerting name of Mohammed Ali and a sexy German lounge singer with a secret Nazi past and ties to King Farouk himself.
Oh, the era’s usual racial and cultural stereotypes are all present and accounted for (“swarthy” gets a particularly good workout), and Vidal’s piercing wit is for the most part missing, but there’s the sense he was still very much exploring new avenues. He got better, and the success of his subsequent Edgar Box books convinced him to aim higher. By the end of the decade he was cranking out scripts for stage, television and film, as well as scores of essays and non-fiction books, eventually becoming one of his era’s pre-eminent essayists and “public intellectuals.”.
But historical and literary interests aside, the book’s just a lot of fun; very much a product of its era. Not as twisted as Spillane or Thompson, or as psychologically complex as MacDonald or Whittington, but chockful of that good old pulpy flavour. Give it a Gold Medal for effort.
Editor and designer Bill Lampkin is hard at work on the next issue of THE PULPSTER, the award-winning PulpFest program book. He’ll be featuring articles on Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, adventure writer and the founder of DC Comics, the Thrilling Group of pulps and comic books, and other topics. The highlight of the issue will be a round-robin article on H. P. Lovecraft and WEIRD TALES. We’re currently expecting contributions from filmmakers Andrew Leman and Sean Branney; game designer Kenneth Hite; Marvin Kaye, the current editor of WEIRD TALES and W. Paul Ganley, founder of WEIRDBOOK; authors David Drake, Cody Goodfellow, Richard Lupoff, John Pelan, Tim Powers, Darrell Schweitzer, Chet Williamson, and Gahan Wilson; pulp scholars Scott Connor, John Haefele, S. T. Joshi, Will Murray, Damon Sasser, and others. So expect a slam-bang issue from the esteemed editor of our highly popular program book. Every member of PulpFest will receive a complimentary copy of THE PULPSTER.
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