I thought I’d take a one day break from invisibility stories to talk about one of my favorite science fiction stories of all time: “Private Eye,” by Lewis Padgett, published in the January 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was even the cover story:
The story was written by “Lewis Padgett,” which was one of many pseudonyms used by the husband and wife writing duo of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. I came across this particular tale while researching my last blog post, and was delighted to see that the story had apparently passed into the public domain since the last time I checked — and it includes illustrations! So let’s discuss “Private Eye” and share those original illustrations, and the story itself for you to read!
“Private Eye” may in a sense be considered an anti-invisibility story. It is set in a future where scientists have learned that light and sound impressions are left behind in the walls of any room, and may be played back like a video recording at any time up to fifty years after an event. This technology is employed to virtually eliminate crime — the perpetrator of any offense can be easily found by playing back the recording of the past to see who did the deed, and why.
In such a society, with an all-seeing Eye metaphorically watching everything that you see or do — but only if you are suspected of a crime that merits a review of your life — it would seem impossible to commit murder and get away with it.
But one man, Sam Clay, vows to do just that. His girlfriend Bea has just left him for Andrew Vanderman, a successful businessman who Bea claims is everything that Sam is not. Sam decides, then and there at the moment of his breakup with Bea, to murder Vanderman. But he cannot do it immediately and cannot do it in any obvious way, and cannot leave any trace of his intent. Thus begins a plot that lasts a year and a half…
He fights with Vanderman, even makes a half-hearted effort to kill him, all for the Eye that he knows will one day look back at his actions. Eventually, he will carry out his plan, and he will succeed — but what does success mean, and is that really what Sam Clay wants?
“Private Eye” is brilliant as a mixture of a science fiction story and a crime novel. We are treated to two perspectives: the story of Sam Clay, through his eyes, and the investigations of the forensic scientists and psychologists, who are sure that something is strange about the Andrew Vanderman murder but cannot find evidence to prove it. Overall, to me, the story is both a profound musing of human nature and a cautionary tale that shows that no technology can solve all our problems. In fact, new technology can introduce new problems unimagined.
The story ends with what I consider one of the best and most shocking endings of any science fiction story I’ve ever read. I leave the details of the story vague, for you to enjoy for yourself: I include the pdf of the story at this link so you can read it without having to hunt the internet for it.
The name “Lewis Padgett” was a combination of the maiden names of the mothers of Kuttner and Moore. I recall reading that it is thought that “Private Eye” was mostly Kuttner’s work, but it is generally very hard to tell. I included this anecdote in my last blog post, but it is so lovely that I include it here again:
“On one occasion I was invited to spend the weekend with Henry Kuttner at the home he shared with his wife, Catherine L. Moore, at Hastings–on–Hudson in New York state. About midnight Catherine went up to bed while Henry and I talked a little while longer. When it was time for me to hit the sack on the spare cot downstairs in the area of the house where the two did their writing, Kuttner took up his place on the other side of the room and set out to get some writing done. I eventually nodded off to the music of Henry Kuttner at the typewriter. Kuttner quit work at about 4:00 A.M. and the sudden interruption of keystrokes and his footsteps on the stairs woke me up. I turned over and was just nodding off again when the typewriter music began again with a slightly different pace and keystroke. Catherine had taken her husband’s place and was taking up right where he left off. They were really good collaborators, and their work together was so seamless that not even they could tell where one had left off and the other had started. Kuttner was the better plotter, but Catherine was the better craftsman in terms of literary ability.”
Incidentally, I first read this tale in a volume of The Golden Years of Science Fiction, compiled by Isaac Asimov. I learned a lot about early sci-fi from this volume, and may talk about more favorite sci-fi stories in future posts.