As so often happens in times of great stress, we have turned for relief to outer space. A slew of recent stories suggested that unidentified flying objects were more than likely alien and nature and more frequently spotted by lucid folks than one might imagine. And of course, the BRTS (Billionaire Race to Space) continues apace as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos lead the way in wasting millions of dollars for ten minutes of thrills. Boys and their toys!
All of this makes me hearken back to an event that captured the imagination of the entire country – and managed to spark a national panic! This, of course, occurred on October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles decided to celebrate Halloween a day early by broadcasting a dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds on his radio program, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
The format of this adaptation was a clever idea: After the announcement clueing the audience in on the title of the evening’s program, Wells himself performed a prologue that conformed to the opening of Wells’ novel. And then the action imitated a typical evening of radio broadcasting that was interrupted at increasing interludes with “news flashes” about mysterious doings over the skies of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. As it becomes apparent that something extraordinary is occurring, the “regular broadcasting” is replaced by news coverage of the military and the science community engaging in a battle for our survival against a hostile alien force and then segues into the story of a survivor (Welles) dealing with the occupation of our planet by Martians.
All of which would have been extremely entertaining and nothing more – except that some people tuned in late and missed the title announcement (Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were playing on a rival network), others thought the “news reports” had to do with a German invasion of America, and some people were just, well, gullible. In the end, Welles had to sit down before Congress and explain himself, resulting in one of the greatest surges in personal publicity ever seen in the pre-Internet age.
Clearly, aliens from Mars were on people’s minds, their interest being elevated by popular fiction like the sagas of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and young Tom Swift. And now French author Paul Halter has capitalized on that popularity with his newest short story, “The Celestial Thief,” translated by John Pugmire and currently to be found in the latest issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
This is a new adventure of Owen Burns, “art critic and detective extraordinary” and his pal Achilles Stock, and it takes place late in their career, after World War II when both men have joined the septuagenarian club in London and when Stock is becoming increasingly irritated by his dear friend’s personality. “To be frank, Owen was becoming unbearable in his old age,” Stock says of Burns, and yet his displeasure seems to be a result of the fact that neither the sleuth’s powers nor his unmitigated ego have diminished.
The pair are vacationing in Nyons in the southeast of France, enjoying their luncheon in a local restaurant, when they are approached by a handsome young shepherd named Henri Favier, who has overheard their conversation about impossible events and is eager to regale them with something that happened to him when he was fifteen. This is a typical opening for Halter in his short stories, where the detective is told a story from the past and then elucidates the solution.
The problem, as Henri presents it, is both basic and existential: basically, one night when he and two friends were outside fooling around with a telescope, they witnessed an extraordinary event when the moon and stars were seemingly stolen from the sky,
“. . . as if an immense black veil had been drawn across it, or a gigantic flying object was hovering over our heads. It lasted several minutes, and then the stars began to shine again, as quickly as they had disappeared!“
This incident follows others that have plagued their tiny French village. More than one sighting of an unidentified flying object has been seen in the sky, and a group of cows had been mutilated for seemingly no human reason. And now, three teenagers – simple-hearted Henri, Gaspar, a womanizing rogue and local prankster, and Pierre, a studious amateur astronomer who put the new telescope together, have another bizarre incident to add to the mix. But things quickly take a more alarming turn, when in the darkness Gaspar begins to cry for help amid sounds of footsteps and the rumbling of rocks. When Pierre shines his torch, Gaspar has disappeared, replaced by a large mound of rocks. The fact that this all takes place right next to the local cemetery adds an extra frisson of fear to the event.
Gaspar is found nearby, bruised and battered and mumbling about having been attacked. The boys fetch several townspeople to help, but while driving him back to town, Gaspar succumbs to his wounds. Did aliens actually invade the village and move from cows to boys in their attack? Or is it more likely that Gaspar, who was despised by a number of locals, including several of the villagers brought back to help the boys, was dispatched by a more human agency?
I have long maintained that Halter excels especially at short fiction, largely because he doesn’t have the space to overload his tales with too many ideas. This is far from my favorite story, but the solution as to how the sky disappeared is extremely clever and simple – so simple that I’m tempted to experiment to see if it actually works. The killer might be obvious to those of us who read a lot of this stuff, but I have to say this was fairly clued and an enjoyable, quick read.
It’s especially fun to see mystery authors dangle elements from other genres in our sight: the use of the supernatural in Carr and Christie, the freaky horrors hinted at in Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, Noel Vindry’s The Howling Beast, Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way and our buddy James Scott Byrnside’s The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire, among others, and the rarer forays into science fiction all add to the pleasures of the read. You just know that the author has to bring the whole thing back to reality at some point, and it’s a blast seeing them dig a hole for themselves and their sleuths – the bigger the better – before they arise unblemished at the end.
That’s why it’s exciting to hear from Santosh that the next LRI release from John Pugmire is a honkaku mystery, Masahiro Inamura’s Death Among the Undead that actually mixes impossible murders with a plague of real zombies!!! I have to admit that I hate flesh-eating zombies, but I’ll be grabbing up a copy as soon as it’s available. And you can expect my review soon after that!!
Munch, munch, crunch crunch . . . .