Sunday, February 20, 2011

Not-so-cutting-edge science of 1912

Into the third of the Craig Kennedy books, and three things are very evident.

One: half of the methods he uses to solve crimes are illegal today. He blithely taps phones and bugs rooms with equipment no one has heard of (at the time) - things like wire recorders, microphones, heat-detectors, and special photograph tricks. He also breaks into apartments and offices, and steals mail and opens it - that should have been illegal back then, too.

Two: he's very naive and Utopian. He predicts a very near future in which "a murder science bureau not only would clear up nearly every poison mystery, but also it would inspire such a wholesome fear among would-be murderers that they would abandon many attempts to take life." Tell that to the CSI franchise!

Three: he's a little too cutting-edge sometimes - for one example, he asserts that from a drop of blood no larger than the head of a pin you can tell even the race and sex of the bleeder, something we don't guarantee to do today with 100% accuracy; for a second, he thinks that "telautomatics" will within a few years mean that battleships will be remotely piloted, crewed, and fought - and sometimes not cutting-edge enough - a quarter century after Michelson and Morley's famous "null result" experiment, he still speaks of "the ether", as in this quote: "A heated mass can impart vibratory motion to the ether which fills space, and the wave-motions of ether are able to reproduce in other bodies motions similar to those by which they are caused."

Oh, yes, There's a fourth. The author uses the school of "things no one would ever say" to wrap up his stories in a neat narrative package. Instead of answering "He can't prove anything, can he?" with a simple "No, no way" the crooked attorney gets taped saying "But he can't do that. No one could ever have recognized you on your flying trip to London disguised as a diamond merchant who had just learned that he could make his faulty diamonds good by applications of radium and who wanted a good stock of the stuff." It does keep things at short-story length, but it makes you giggle just a bit, too.

Still, the stories are good entertainment. I'm about a quarter of the way through the omnibus (yay, Kindle!) and will probably leave the next nine books till after I've read something else (got a few new novels, the latest previously uncollected Vonnegut, some Russian WWII novels, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at the top of the list), but I will come back and finish them.



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