Friday, September 12, 2008

The Case of the Colonist's Corpse

Yep, I'm going back a bit this time. Though its publication date is January 2004, I had not yet read Bob Ingersoll and Tony Isabella's The Case of the Colonist's Corpse. I wanted to watch the original series episode "Court Martial" first, and between Xbox use and TV shows we haven't already watched, that just kept slipping lower down prioritywise. But on Monday I watched it as part of a multi-series Trek marathon (well, it was September 8, after all) so it was time at last to read the book.

As the alliterative title and the unusual cover design are meant to suggest, this is basically Perry Mason in space, with "Court Martial" guest characters Samuel T. Cogley and Areel Shaw standing in for Mason and his unlucky prosecutorial nemesis, Hamilton Burger. The authors also bring in new characters Peter Lawrence and Jacqueline LaSalle, stand-ins for Perry Mason's investigator Paul Drake and secretary Della Street.

It's been years since I read any of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, so I can't say to what extent the book captures the original, but I suspect the authors did a pretty good job. This is a solid and conventional murder mystery that, even with the addition of Klingons and 23rd century technology, plays fairly by the rules of the genre. (One thing missing that was usually present in Perry Mason novels: the page at the beginning of the book listing the cast of characters.) There's courtroom drama, multiple suspects with motive and opportunity to spare, red herrings, and a frustrated prosecutor. Shaw's characterization seems to be slightly changed to make her more of a Burger character as the book goes on; I suspect the authors were developing a more adversarial relationship in case they had the chance to write a sequel or two.

In general, the book is a lot of fun, and the characters are well drawn; we have a few chapters to get to know the victim before he's killed and to see the web of intrigue being cast around him. It's a good storytelling choice, because if you've come to like the victim, you'll be emotionally involved in the solution of the crime, not just enjoying the puzzle-solving aspect of it.

There are a lot of nice touches. Cogley's base of operations on Earth is an office in the Bradbury Building, the famous LA landmark seen in Double Indemnity, Blade Runner, Harlan Ellison's Outer Limits episode "Demon With a Glass Hand," and many more. With its history, it's exactly the kind of place someone like Cogley (who prefers books to computers) would be. There's even mention of Blade Runner in the book, as Cogley discusses the building's history with a client who's come to visit. Which led me to think: if Blade Runner is looked at as neo-noir, then William Sanderson's J.F. Sebastian character is the equivalent of some of the characters Elisha Cook, Jr, who played Cogley, played in such film noir classics as The Big Sleep. Whether that was on the authors' minds at all, I don't know, but I like that it adds a little metatextual fun to the book. Also, Cogley's insistance in "Court Martial" that the answers are to be found in books plays out literally in the novel.

So, it works as a mystery novel. Does it work as Star Trek? Yes. Though Kirk and the Enterprise make only the briefest of fleeting appearances, the book draws on characters established onscreen, and builds on elements from several episodes: "Court-Martial," obviously, but also "Errand of Mercy" and "The Trouble With Tribbles," as the murder occurs on a planet that the Federation and the Klingons are both trying to colonize, following the Organians' declaration that both sides may try to colonize unclaimed worlds, and whichever side is more successful can keep the planet. Klingon culture is important to the story, as are phasers and computers.

Though this was apparently John Ordover's pet project and he's no longer at Pocket, I'd be happy to read another Cogley case or two. And if they never materialize, well, I've got this one.

Incidentally, there's a chat transcript with Ingersoll and Isabella on in which they mention that they hoped to do more (and Ingersoll mentions that Isabella had the idea of doing a police procedural featuring Odo, which isn't a bad idea either). It's a shame that the number of book series and the limited number of publishing slots makes these possible follow-up books less likely. Maybe we need a trade paperback collection of novellas or short stories of mystery/crime stories in the Trekverse, with stories starring Cogley, Odo, Philippa Louvois, maybe a heist/caper story involving Quark, Dixon Hill, etc....


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