Wednesday, January 29, 2014

THE DREAM DOCTOR by Arthur B. Reeve

I'm fond of Reeve's Craig Kennedy stories, not because they're well-written (they're OK, if sometimes clunky), but for the verve with which Reeve gloms on to every scientific fad, even if it was disproven five minutes later. His works end up having a steampunk air to them that's fascinating.

Again, The Dream Doctor (1914) is made up of a series of unconnected cases, and is really a string of short stories put together as a novel...but at least this time has a framing story of Kennedy's Watson, the reporter Jameson, tailing him for a solid month just to see how many cases he deals with. It's also got a slightly interesting structure, in that the cases don't neatly begin and end with chapter openings and closings, but will end and start midchapter. OK, that's not all that revolutionary, but I did say it was slightly interesting.

The Dream Doctor opens with the mystery of a wealthy stockbroker, who falls dead on the street after leaving behind a cryptic letter that some say is a suicide note. His wife claims to have had a premonition in a dream of his death. It's through the examination of several typewriters, and examination of the wife's dreams (done in Freudian style, as if Freud's ideas were a one-size-fits-all proposition and psychology was an exact science) that Kennedy spots the culprit. Then an actress is found dead in a beauty parlor; the cause is not evident, but there are weird glowing spots inside her mouth. It appears she was killed by a phosphorus-tainted enveloped that she licked; but who did it and why? It takes use of a "rayograph" (to detect forgeries) and a "string galvanometer" (a primitive device for recording electrocardiograms) to reveal the killer.

A string galvanometer. I'm glad my cardiologist doesn't use one.
In his next case he comes to the aid of a diplomat who's being threatened by a Balkan terrorist group who wants to keep "American dollars" out of Europe and not incite wars. The solution involves a bizarre telephone that connects through a light bulb (?!??!) and poisoned wallpaper. Then a wealthy art collector is worried about threats to his private museum. For some reason green objects, and green only, were being stolen, but now other things are being swiped. He nabs the thief with a sort of primitive electric eye called an "optophone" and some outdated ideas about absinthe.

An optophone.
Next up, another millionaire (Kennedy moves in only the best circles, you see) calls up; it seems his cook has been stabbed to death in the kitchen. Kennedy at once realizes it's not a normal stabbing, but was done with " a Behr bulletless gun" which apparently fires a knife blade into the body. Kennedy can't touch a mystery that doesn't have a bizarre method of murder...or that doesn't require esoteric equipment to solve. He uses a then-new-to-the-public sphygmomanometer, or what we know today as a blood pressure reader, and some spurious-sounding "blood crystal analysis" to uncover the culprit. The Kennedy is called on to investigate the death of an actress who was the scion of a prominent family but who had been estranged from her clan. She had a drug problem, and Jameson is suspicious of a "queer-looking Jap" that hangs about (oh, that early-20th-century racism!). We also find out Kennedy can be depended on to engineer a truce in a Tong war. There's some basic ballistics involved here, and some exotic "narcotic bullets" that carry a dose of morphia to knock people out with only a slight graze. Of course, someone is not who they seem to be, and a major drug ring is smashed as a result.

Next up is a rash of jewel thefts being pulled by a slick gang of shoplifters. He uses a telegraphone again (he used one before), basically an old-school method of wiretapping, and a galvanometer to test suspects' skin conductivity to catch the of whom is a real kleptomaniac more deserving of pity than censure. Then we have his investigation into the murder of a scientist who was on the verge of perfecting synthetic rubber. This ends up being the most bizarre motive and crime I've seen in a while; the murderer is afflicted with sleeping sickness after a bite from tsetse fly, and has dosed on poisonous medications so much he needs to replace his blood with someone else's! It's straight out of a horror film with Lionel Atwill and George Zucco, and makes little sense.

Then a bomb is sent to the district attorney's office; it doesn't go off, but is a scare. The DA's office is involved in a war against a local vice lord, and the safe assumption is that they sent it. Kennedy sets out to uncover the criminal's identity, a chase leading from a seedy cabaret to an underground bomb factory, and he uses a now-common device, a thermopile, and a hydraulic ram to solve the mystery. After that, Kennedy is contacted by the Navy when secret documents are stolen. (And announced in the paper, one of the most unbelievable things in this book.) It turns out the papers were dealing with new work in "telautomatics" or what we today would call "remote-controlled drone ships". Kennedy uses an audion, an old-style wireless wave detector, to nab the culprit.

This mild-mannered object is an audion.
Jameson himself approaches Kennedy with a new case; his paper has received an anonymous note questioning the death of a young banker so soon after his family bank collapses. On the tail of that comes word that his mausoleum had been broken into, and a blackmail note is sent to his widow. What's going on? A Crookes tube and spectroscope to uncover the truth...a story so bizarre and unlikely the denouement is unintentionally funny. And finally, a man is imprisoned for murder, and his wife begs Kennedy to prove his innocence. A fish-eye lens peephole, like in so many apartment doors, comes in handy, especially when connected to a camera, and Kennedy uses an ultraviolet lamp as well to detect a forged will.

A Crookes tube. That would make for a cool lamp.
So, how was it? Enjoyable, if cockeyed and often contrived. Everyone turns to Kennedy when there's a problem, and he's simultaneously a private eye for the wealthy and a top government agent, it seems. It's entertaining, and sometimes preposterous, although seeming to lack the courage of its own preposterousness at times, if that makes sense.

The Dream Doctor is easily available from multiple sources as a free or low-cost ebook. Used copies are out there, but can cost the earth.

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