Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, July 15, 2011


John Carstairs:  Space Detective by Frank Belknap Long (1949)

First off, I have to admit that this book takes a huge hunk of willing suspension of disbelief.  That said, there remains a lot of coolness here.

     The John Carstairs series started out as seven stories published in Thrilling Wonder Stories from 1941 to 1943.  Five of the seven are included in this book.  Taking up the last half of the book is a short novel, The Hollow World, which appeared in Startling Stories in 1945.  Only one of the eight stories has ever been anthologized:  Plants Must Slay, which appeared in the somewhat rare, digest-sized paperback The Saint's Choice of Impossible Crimes edited by Leslie Charteris in 1945.  (Caution:  Completely extraneous comment veering away from main topic ahead.  At one time, there were rumors that TSCOIM had been ghost-edited by Theodore Sturgeon.  I'm pretty sure that claim has been debunked.  Does anyone know for sure?  Now back to your regularly scheduled review.)

     John Carstairs as a space detective does very little detecting.  In fact he is a botonist, the curator of the Interplanetary Botonical Gardens at some time in the future.  He is young (28) and a leader in the field.  He's made the IBG into one of the world's greatest attractions, expanding it over the past ten years to cover a full two square mile.  (That willing suspension of disbelief I mentioned?  Here's an example.  He would have been 18 when appointed to this position.  Pfui!  Pulp writers seldom had time to check their work for consistency.)  Carstairs does have an avocation and that is helping his friend Inspector McGuire in solving homicides.   He does this by using plants found throughout the solar system.

     It just so happens that, sometime in the future, it will be discovered that within every atom there exists a little sun.  Keep suspending that disbelief.  And these little suns give off radiation that can stay in place for some hours, so if a person stays in the same place for a five minutes or so, or if a person is highly excited (huh?), those little tiny radiations take the form -- albeit invisible -- of the person in every detail.  Of course, those little radiations also take the form of one's clothes; we don't want any nekked invisible forms around in our more strait-laced pulps.  Okay.  It happened that Carstairs came across very tiny interplanetary plants that eat radiation.  If one throws the tiny plants around a crime scene, one can get a 3-D replica of the criminal or the victim.  Voila!  Case solved.  Sometimes.
    Through out the solar system there are an awful lot of perambulating plants, most of which are deadly and some of which are minimally intelligent.  Carstairs has also discovered a fern that has developed a defense mechanism of detecting any walking plant from a distance of ten miles or so; the fern will point in the direction of the enemy plant as a magnet would point to the north, completely disregarding any solid objects between it and its moving enemy.  A neat trick for tracing an escaped killer plant.

     Also in the future, new planets have been discoved beyond Pluto.  These planets don't have names, just numbers, such as Planet 10, Planet 11, and so on.  It seems that these planets are so cold and harsh and devoid of fauna that their discovers did not want to put their names on the planets.  Right.  But these do seem to be great spot for flora.  The outer planets are so distant that few persons have traveled to the furthest ones.  And botony seems to be the preferred science of the future.  Botonists are the future's heroes; they are da bomb.  Every exploratory ship has a botonist, no matter how small the crew.

     Did I mention that there was a love interest?  Vera Dorn, Carstair's young, red-headed secretary/assistant/fiancee.  She's a woman who states her own mind and often crosses swords with her boss/fiance.  As the number two person in the cast, she sadly fades into the background in many of the stories.

    The short novel (it would have made a great half of an old Ace double) that ends the book shows some unfortunate slap-dash writing, making me wonder if Long ever bothered to do a second draft of The Hollow World.  Flashbacks appear in odd places when they should have been incorporated into the main flow of the story.  A particularly dreadful plant devours a man and is termed a "cannibal".  Pivotal scenes are glossed over.  Plot points are hurried.  And so it goes.

     For me, the great thing about these stories is the sheer inventiveness of the many vegetative creatures that Long has created.  Their diversity is stunning.  As a writer, Long could blow both hot and cold, bhere's far more heat here than cold IHO.   This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you like pulp -- and to heck with a lot of logic -- give this one a try.


  1. This one sounds like it might be up my alley. I like that kid of goofy stuff9witness my choice this week).

  2. Wow, I haven't seen the name Frank Belknap Long in ages! I've read plenty of his work, but not this one. I'll have to track it down.

  3. I devoured this as an 11-year old kid, bought an old copy recently to revisit the memorably spooky novella "The Hollow World"