Sunday, July 1, 2018
The Black Drop of Venus, by Mark Thielman
The Black Orchid Novella Award is co-sponsored by the Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It is intended to promote the sort of fair play detective stories illustrated by Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novellas.
The rules do not require that the story follows the structure of Stout's work, but most of the winners have done that. (Full disclosure: mine did.) Here's what I mean by that structure: the narrator does the legwork of investigating a crime, bringing back clues to an older and wiser character, who solves the crime, usually by bringing all the suspects together for a chat.
Thielman has followed that pattern, as he did with his 2015 winner, which also made my best-of list. Both of his novellas use actual historical figures.
It is 1769, deep in the South Pacific. Our narrator is Joseph Banks, chief naturalist on the HMS Endeavour, which has been sent on a scientific investigation to observe the Transit of Venus. When one of Banks's assistants is found with his throat cut just as they arrive at Tahiti, Banks is ordered to investigate the crime by none other than Captain James Cook. He is handicapped by his lack of knowledge of navy ways and nautical vocabulary, but he brings back the facts which allow Cook to cleverly determine the identity of the murderer.
Cook is a wonderful character here. Witness his comment on another character:
I wished I had the opportunity to have spoken more with the man. Of course, I may have ended up ordering him hanged, but up to then, he would have proved a fascinating man with whom to converse. A pity I missed the opportunity.