Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Silent Bullet by Arthur B. Reeve

American Sherlock? Hardly.
Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective, was a popular character in fiction magazines of the early 20th century. At least 80 Kennedy stories by Arthur B. Reeve were published in Cosmopolitan, and he appeared in other periodicals as well. These stories were later gathered into collections and published in book form. The Silent Bullet, originally published in 1912, is the first of these collections. It contains twelve Kennedy cases, including the title selection.

Kennedy is a professor of chemistry and an ardent proponent of the application of science to the solving of crimes. His sidekick Walter Jameson, a reporter for the New York Star, narrates the stories. Former college roommates, the two have continued to live together into their adult bachelorhoods, and their apartment is frequented by visitors desiring their advice on mysterious matters. This is all blatantly derivative of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, of course. Instead of Holmes’ method of deductive reasoning, however, Kennedy usually employs laboratory experimentation or utilizes some technological apparatus in solving his cases.

I enjoy vintage pulp fiction, and I really wanted to like this collection, but once I got into the stories I was quite disappointed. Because Kennedy’s adventures take place about 40 years after those of Holmes, the science is a little more advanced, but still, today’s readers will find many of Kennedy’ scientific methods either faulty or just not very interesting. In a couple of cases, for example, he employs the newfangled invention known as the microphone. Thankfully, no one seems to notice the hundreds of yards of wire he strings about to make it work. In another instance he uses a light bulb and two wires to warn the police—hardly cutting edge technology. Even worse, much of the evidence he uncovers is circumstantial. Apparently in Kennedy’s time a lie detector test, to cite but one example, was enough for a conviction. The best of these stories are mediocre, the rest are just bad. They are disappointing individually, but taken as a whole they’re even more annoying because they are so repetitive. Because Kennedy is a chemist, almost every crime involves some kind of poison, and in almost every case, the most obvious suspect ends up being the guilty party. The second half of the book is a slight improvement on the first, as Reeve deviates from his monotonous template and introduces a little variety into the proceedings. In “Spontaneous Combustion,” Kennedy does the kind of blood work one might find in today’s CSI television shows, and the ending is not entirely predictable. In “Artificial Paradise,” Kennedy and Jameson ingest peyote. The latter’s description of his hallucinations is quite enjoyable, but the story is ruined by some questionable science that defies belief.

Despite his exceptional intelligence, Kennedy is not as arrogant as Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Kennedy has no personality whatsoever. I don’t believe we are ever even given a physical description of Kennedy or Jameson, other than Kennedy smokes cigars. The two merely say and do the bare minimum to push the story forward. What Reeve apparently did not learn from reading Conan Doyle is that the personality quirks of the protagonist are a vital part of the story. Without them, the proceedings are dull and lifeless. Since these are some of the earliest Kennedy stories, it’s possible that Reeve improved with time and that not all of the scientific detective’s adventures are as lame as those found in The Silent Bullet. I, however, don’t intend to find out. I’d rather go back and reread The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Stories in this collection
The Silent Bullet 
The Scientific Cracksman 
The Bacteriological Detective 
The Deadly Tube 
The Seismograph Adventure 
The Diamond Maker 
The Azure Ring 
“Spontaneous Combustion” 
Terror in the Air
The Black Hand 
Artificial Paradise 
The Steel Door 

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