Poul Anderson: Murder in Black Letter (1960)

Poul Anderson was one of the 20th century’s most prolific writers of science fiction, and one of its most inventive and versatile. In addition to SF, he wrote a number of fantasy works, and in the 1950s, three mystery novels featuring private detective Trygve Nakamura. As an Anderson fan, I’ve been aware of these books for years, but had never as much as seen a copy of one until I was browsing on my Kindle the other day and saw that one of them was available for the low, low price of 99 cents Canadian. One download later…

The story takes place in and around Berkeley, California, and in particular at the University of California’s campus there. Teaching assistant Bruce Lombardi has been murdered, and from the marks on his body it’s clear he’d been tortured in the hours before his death. But what information did he have that the murderer wanted, and what’s the murderer going to do next? Professor Robert Kintyre, a man of action in spite of his academic job, identifies the body for the police, then sets out to investigate with an occasional bit of mentoring from his friend and judo sensei Nakamura…

I was never bored reading the story, but it seems to me Anderson was trying to be all things to all readers in this one. We have an orthodox “whodunit” plot with one quite good clue to the murderer’s identity, but we also have plenty of gangsters and other tough guys, several fight scenes where Kintyre gets to show us his knowledge of judo, and late in the book, a subplot straight out of one of the “psychological realism” mysteries that writers like Helen McCloy and Margaret Millar were turning out at the time. There’s no inherent reason why you can’t combine a puzzle with hard-boiled violence and probes into the human mind, but I kept feeling as though I was jumping out of one novel and into another. And while everything gets wrapped up satisfactorily by the conclusion, the finale didn’t so much end the book as stop it abruptly. 

If you’ve read much else by Anderson, you won’t be surprised to learn that this tale bears the hallmarks of his other work: his distinctive but very readable style, bits of esoteric knowledge, and some grousing about the Way Things Are Today.

I enjoyed Murder in Black Letter enough that I’ll buy the other two books in this series if I ever see them on sale at a reasonable price, but based on this one, I won’t be expecting anything on the level of Anderson’s SF classics like Tau Zero or The Time Patrol.

One amusing little in-joke: Anthony Boucher’s 1937 novel The Case of the Seven of Calvary also takes place at Berkeley, and involves a professor named John Ashwin who solves several murders. A “Professor Ashwin” is mentioned in passing in this book. Given that Boucher also wrote and edited science fiction, and that every professional SF writer in 1960 seemed to know all the others, I can’t believe this was a coincidence.

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