Monday, March 21, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Eyes Have It

I'm a big fan of alternate histories. What I expect of them is not necessarily plausibility so much as believability. By that I mean that I don't generally worry too much about how likely the point of divergence from the real world's history is so much as whether the author uses that point of divergence to create a world that I can accept as a logical consequence of it. It's a fine distinction, I'll grant, but I mention it because one of my favorite alternate histories is the one presented by Randall Garrett in his "Lord Darcy" series, whose point of departure is the existence of magic, which is used to save the life of Richard I, who returned to England and ruled justly, paving the way for a united Plantagenet empire reigning into the 1960s.

Professional historians would no doubt take much issue with Garrett's alternate timeline. I myself probably know enough about English history to be able to argue convincingly against the likelihood of this setting ever coming to pass, but I won't, because I think that's beside the point. For me anyway, a good alternate history is one that's so well realized that I want to believe in it, regardless of whether it holds up to academic scrutiny. And the alternate history Randall Garrett introduced to us in his 1964 short story, "The Eyes Have It," is one I want to believe in.

The story opens in the Castle D'Evreux in Normandy, where "Sir Pierre Morlaix, Chevalier of the Angevin Empire, Knight of the Golden Leopard, and secretary-in-private to ... the Count D'Evreux" came to his lord's private suite only to find Count Edouard
lay[ing] flat on his back, his arms spread wide, his eyes staring at the ceiling. He was still clad in his gold and scarlet evening clothes. But the great stain on the front of his coat was not the same shade of scarlet as the rest of the cloth, and the stain had a bullet hole in the center.

Sir Pierre looked at him without moving for a long moment. Then he stepped over, knelt, and touched one of the Count's hands with the back of his own. It was quite cool. He had been dead for hours.

"I knew someone would do you in sooner or later, my lord," said Sir Pierre, almost regretfully.
This murder comes to the attention of Richard, the Duke of Normandy, and brother to the "Most Serene Lord, John IV, by the Grace of God, King and Emperor of England, France, Scotland, and Ireland, New England, and New France, Defender of the Faith." In a letter to the King-Emperor, the Duke writes the following in reference to recognizing the murdered nobleman's wife, Alice, as his legal heir:
"Dear John, May I suggest you hold up on this for a while? Edouard was a lecher and a slob, and I have no doubt he got everything he deserved, but we have no notion who killed him. For any evidence I have to the contrary, it might have been Alice who pulled the trigger. I will send you full particulars as soon as I have them. With much love, Your brother and servant, Richard."
To get to the bottom of this mystery, Duke Richard sends along his Chief Criminal Investigator, Lord Darcy, and his assistant, Master Sean O Lochlainn, who is a "forensic sorcerer," which is to say, a magician skilled in using his art to uncover information useful in criminal investigations. As central a character as Darcy is to both this short story and those that follow in the series, magic itself plays as important a role as Darcy, though not quite in the way one might expect.

Isaac Asimov famously wrote his 1954 novel, The Caves of Steel, as a refutation of John W. Campbell's belief that one could not write a science fictional mystery, since SF authors can easily invent new "facts" based on future science or technology that the reader could not anticipate. A science fiction mystery can thus "cheat" in a way that contemporary stories could not. Asimov disagreed and I can't help but wonder if Randall Garrett didn't similarly disagree regarding magic. Like Asimov's future world, Garrett's alternate historical magic has laws and strictly abides by them. Magic has limitations as well. Its study and practice is akin to a science and this makes it possible, once one understands it, to see how and when it might be used in the commission -- or discovery -- of a crime.

Lord Darcy himself has no magical ability. Instead, he possesses a keen mind and an eye for observing small details others, even magicians, overlook. His magical assistant is useful to his investigation in the same way that a crime scene investigator or medical examiner might be in the real world. Master O Lochlainn's sorcery can uncover clues certainly, but it does not obviate the need for deduction. Indeed, the fundamentals of investigation remain the same in Lord Darcy's alternate 1960s as they do in our own, which is, I think, the greatest virtue of this story and its successors: despite the presence of magic, they present "real" mysteries that can be solved by the reader. Garrett plays these mysteries straight -- the magic and the alternate history are just set dressing for some cleverly done detective stories. If you've never had the chance to read a Lord Darcy story, do yourself a favor and seek one out. You won't regret it.

5 comments:

  1. That's really fascinating! I just read (& reviewed) a Simon Ark collection, a 1956 short story series about an occult detective - and pretty much came to the same conclusion. You can very easily write a supernatural mystery as long as you play fair with the supernatural. As soon as the magic becomes something on its own, you're just writing a fantasy...

    "Just" is a little pejorative - occult detectives are plenty awesome, but sometimes I want ones that detect as well.

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  2. These are some of my favorite stories.

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  3. Gygax tried to do much the same thing with his Magister Setne Inhetep novels (The Anubis Murders, etc.). Did not find those very good reading, IMO.

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  4. I am a huge Lord Darcy fan, and have been since high school. It is a great tragedy that Randall Garrett's literary career ended early (he was 50 when he was struck down and unable to write again). Given how prolific he was, if he had had another 10 or 20 years, the world would be a much richer place, literarily speaking. There were a pair of Lord Darcy books written later on by another author that were quite inferior, if memory serves.

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  5. My favorite feature of the "Lord Darcy" series is Garrett's copious use of "Easter eggs". Reading one of these stories is a game of "spot the reference".

    "James la Lein" always elicits a chuckle.

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