DXMachina (dxmachina) wrote,

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It was a little early in the season, but we got a dose of Indian summer yesterday. It was a gorgeous day, with temperatures reaching the mid-seventies. I spent the afternoon outside doing yard work. Mowed the lawn for the final time this season, got the mower ready for storage, and threw the tarp over it for the winter. Put the grill away, too.

Indoors I started moving stuff out of the living room so I can start thinking about painting and ripping up the carpet. It'll be tricky, because I really can't move everything out. At very least, I'll have to work around the couch. I did haul the bikes down to the basement and hang them up for the winter. That was depressing. I think I only rode them three times this year.

It was also Halloween, so I got to hand out candy to the local kids. There were fewer than last year, only thirty-two. I think some of the older kids who showed up last year have finally given it up. Now I have a big bowl of candy that keeps calling my name.

I managed to finish one of the books I've been reading, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, and I'm most of the way through Angelmass by Timothy Zahn. The Demolished Man is a lot like a Columbo episode. I was never a big fan of Columbo, even though watched it a lot. I like mysteries, but Columbo wasn't really that kind of series. You knew right from the start who did it. It's really not even a police procedural, because you always got the impression that Columbo knew exactly who did it from the beginning, too. It's all about the psychological battle between the Columbo and the killer. The only mystery was how the killer would inevitably trip up.

The Demolished Man presents the same type of situation. Lincoln Powell knows who the killer is. He knows because he's a telepath, a peeper, and he's read the murderer's mind. Unfortunately, telepathic evidence isn't permissible in court, so now he has to prove his case against one of the most powerful men in the world, Ben Reich. He needs to show means, motive, and opportunity, and the case has to be airtight. The novel follows the case from the planning of the murder, to its execution, and then through Powell's subsequent investigation.

Reich is extraordinarily clever. There hasn't been a successful pre-meditated murder in seventy-five years because there's no way to prevent the ever-present peepers from noticing the intense emotions that accompany the planning of such a deed. He manages to protect himself from prying minds using an earworm. He carefully manages to isolate the victim in the middle of a large party. He prepares a murder weapon that leaves no trace of how it killed the victim. He has an answer for everything, and the resources to back it up.

There is one episode of Columbo that I do like a lot. In it, Columbo is matching wits with a yacht club type played by Robert Vaughn. But then, halfway through the episode, Vaughn's character turns up dead, and Columbo has to figure out who did both killings. It's the only time I can recall Columbo actually presenting a mystery, and it was a nice change. The reason I bring it up is that something similar happens here. Despite all the murderer's efforts, Powell manages to piece together his case. He even manages to track down an eyewitness. And then the wheels come off. It turns out that the Reich's motive doesn't, in fact, exist. There was absolutely no reason for him to kill the victim. Yet kill him he did, so now there's a mystery. Why did he do it?

Unfortunately, the book gets a little muddled at this point. The muddle comes from a couple of things. First, Powell somehow becomes convinced that Reich is a galactic focal point, a shaper of the future, sort of like John Crichton, or most of the major characters in Gordon Dickson's Childe Cycle. The problem with this is that we're never given any evidence of why Powell believes this, just that he does. Second, Powell uses his unproven contention to get the Guild to help him actually enter and manipulate Reich's mind until Powell can discover what the motive actually was. It all gets very Freudian at this point. At the end, Reich winds up as a vegetable, but since they can now prove he's a murderer, they completely demolish his personality anyway. There's also a subplot about Powell and the witness that gets tied up in a very pat little bow. It's all very unsatisfying in the end, which is a shame, because the rest of the book is great.

Bester does a wonderful job meshing the SF elements with the mundane to develop a believable world in which telepaths live and work. His telepathic "conversations" are things of beauty. In fact, it all works so well that J. Michael Straczynski lifted the Espers Guild virtually intact for Babylon 5's Psi Corps, even naming the chief Psi Cop "Al Bester."

If the book has a failing it's that there are some plot holes in the mystery. There hasn't been a successful pre-meditated murder in seventy-five years thanks to the espers, yet a few days after Reich does it, a couple of hired thugs manage to kill a witness, and just miss Powell and another witness. It's the biggest WTF in the book, and Bester never explains how it could've happened. Another problem is that Powell seems to be all about the all-or-nothing. That's quite a failing in a police officer. He complains that without a motive, he can't get a conviction of Reich, yet he keeps overlooking Reich's other crimes. He'd earlier caught Reich red-handed trying to kill another witness. Why didn't he have Reich arrested for attempted murder then. That made no sense, especially since he then goes and does something the Guild normally considers unethical to get his murder conviction.

Still, they don't detract too much from the story. On the SF end, the book holds up well despite being a vision of the future from fifty years back. I could wish for a better ending, but it's not a huge quibble.
Tags: books, house, weather, yard

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