My mom sends me mysteries from the swap shop at the town dump, with mini-reviews on Post-Its. Once she sent three books with one note: “One of these is good, one’s okay, and one is pretty bad.” The note she sent with Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley reads, “I’d never read this one. It was fun. Love, Mom.” The Post-It is purple.
My mom and I love mysteries; my sister (the theatrical designer, not the librarian) and I love science fiction. She recently got me hooked on Saga, which I intend to write about here as soon as she lends me her friend’s copies of volumes 2 and 3. She left Flight of the Dragonfly, by Robert L. Forward–the middle initial’s important*–at my house after her Chanukah visit.
The Crime at Black Dudley features amateur detective Albert Campion, Allingham’s knock-off of Lord Peter Wimsey. Like Wimsey, Campion becomes more of a person in later books, but this is earlyish, 1929. I love British mysteries from between the two world wars. They are the smuggest and most anxious texts ever. Scholarship exists (she wrote airily) about the mystery novel as conservative and reactionary form: the forces of established order triumph, the people the story knows are evil are punished. In The Crime at Black Dudley, this happens.
Science fiction has its smugnesses too: progress, humanism, a kind of triumphalist advancement through the universe.
Forward’s book is full of mighty effort–he’s showing his work. Swathes of the story, plus an appendix, go to explaining and extrapolating the science and math that got our heroes into space and determine what happens when they get there. The aliens are carefully and enthusiastically alien in both chemistry and culture, though they share the scientific and mathematical drives that Forward values in humans. He’s been at some pains to divide the mission crew between the two main genders and make it at least nominally multiracial, though this mostly shows up as characters making borscht-belt jokes about their own and others’ identities; the two central characters are so white that one’s override password is NORDIC. Everything about the workings of the ship’s computer, including its mobile units and multiple AI personalities, we learn along with the crew. And if you’re ever stuck at the bottom of an ammonia-and-water ocean on an underwater glacier on a volcano on a double planet and you have to MacGyver your way out with a couple of fans and a limited amount of fuel propulsion, Robert L. Forward has thought long and hard about how to get you out of there.
Allingham, for her part, is barely trying at all. Check them off: the timid criminologist roused to manliness when the villain threatens the woman he loves; the suave and scheming Jew, the brutal “Hun”, and the rescue via the heroism and horsemanship of the county Hunt; international criminal gangs who corrupt womanhood and value money over decency; a manor house with giant fireplaces, dinner gongs, the Black Dudley Ritual Dagger and a welter of priests’ holes and secret passageways. In this last area, Allingham has put in some time: the layout of the house is important to the action, if not precisely to the plot. In an effort to stave off eventual Alzheimer’s, I’ve started trying to imagine the layout in stories where the author makes a point of it, and follow the characters from room to room as though I were playing Clue. I even tried to follow at least some of the physics in Flight of the Dragonfly. I admit to giving up.
I don’t read these books to sneer at them, but my expectations for them are low. Understanding Forward’s gravitational tides and laser propulsion systems might require me to be smarter or more rigorous, but it wouldn’t require me to abandon anything I hold dear. When these novels espouse or default to ideas similar to mine, I feel cozy; the ideas that differ from mine are usually easy to reject. Some of the best mysteries and science fiction do the exact opposite (Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy and Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, for two) and I’m always on the lookout for books that insist on an alteration in my understanding. But I’m just as pleased–not to say relieved–when I don’t find them.
*Here’s exactly what it says on the last page of Flight of the Dragonfly:
For those readers who care, Robert L. Forward, who writes hard-science fiction novels, is not to be confused with his son, Robert D. Forward, who writes hard-hitting adventure novels.”
You could almost fit it on a Post-It.