Fri 13 May 2016
DAVID VINEYARD: Stories I’m Reading – ROBERT A. HEINLEIN “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”Posted by Steve under Pulp Fiction , Stories I'm Reading
ROBERT A. HEINLEIN “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.” First published in Unknown Worlds, October 1942, as by John Riverside. Reprinted many times, most notably in the Gnome Press collection having the same title (1959).
The impact of the hard-boiled school of writing can be seen today in many literary voices, but not surprisingly, it first made itself felt in genre fiction, and not just in the mystery genre. In the 1930’s the voice began to appear in the Western, in Hollywood films, and in science fiction, particularly in that branch of science fiction known as Campbellian after editor and writer John W. Campbell Jr. It was only natural then that as the lines blurred the genres would blend together somewhat, and by the 1940’s, it was well established in most genre fiction.
Unknown (later Unknown Worlds) the companion to Campbell’s science fiction pulp Astounding Science Fiction, published a great deal of fantasy and horror, but all along the Campbellian ideal of well worked out logical fiction, many of the works appearing there the best of the writers’ careers and among the best and most loved stories of its age.
Most of the major writers from Astounding contributed to Unknown as well, L. Sprague de Camp, L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, A. E. Van Vogt, and some earlier writers like Jack Williamson and Henry Kuttner. Humor, horror, adventure, and high fantasy went hand in hand. De Camp and Pratt’s “Incomplete Enchanter,” Hubbard’s “Fear,” “Death’s Deputy,” and “Typewriter in the Sky,” Williamson’s “Darker than You Think,” Eric Frank Russell’s “Sinister Barrier,” and many other classics first saw light there. Among those who wrote for the new market was Robert A. Heinlein, dean of the Campbellian science fiction movement, who wrote this little novelette under the name John Riverside.
In it Teddy Randall and his wife Cynthia (Cyn) are private investigators approached by Mr. Jonathan Hoag, a prim and somehow unsettling individual they both take an instant dislike to, but his money is good and the case seems simple enough if a bit whacky. Mr. Hoag, it seems, has a memory problem.
No, not amnesia, at least not exactly. Mr. Hoag doesn’t know what he does during his days. They are a complete blank, so when he finds what he fears is blood under his fastidious finger nails he hires the Randalls to follow him. Whacky, as I said, but the the Randalls aren’t the scrupulous type, and money is money. They take the case. So what if their client doesn’t appear to have any fingerprints.
The Randalls work together, a well oiled and capable little investigative team, and part of the enjoyment is watching the duo think and work. They are a sort of sexy slightly larcenous Nick and Nora or Pam and Jerry North, an attractive addition to the subgenre of married sophisticated sleuths that delighted mystery fans in the years following the debut of Hammett’s Nick and Nora.
And follow Mr. Hoag they do, until Randall discovers the address and the office in the Acme Building he followed Hoag to on the first day doesn’t exist and even the floor of the building he was on isn’t there. At first they suspect he was drugged by Hoag, or that worse, he was hypnotized when Hoag stopped and spoke to him, but Hoag genuinely doesn’t appear to remember the encounter or anything else Randall saw that day.
Things get even more weird when Randall meets a threatening Mr. Stoles:
Before Randall could answer, Stoles shoved a palm in his direction. “Don’t be hasty, Mr. Randall. Let me explain. Not all of your activities. We do not care how many blondes you plant in hotel rooms to act as complacent corespondents in divorce cases, nor how many wires you tap, nor letters you open. There is only one activity of yours we are concerned with. I refer to Mr. Hoag.” He spat out the last word. watched and waited.
Randall could feel a stir of uneasiness run through the room.
“What about Mr. Hoag?” he demanded.
There was the stir again. Stoles’ face no longer even pretended to smile.
“Let us refer to him hereafter,” he said, “as ‘your client:’ It comes to this, Mr. Randall. We have other plans for Mr. … for your client, You must leave him alone. You must forget him, you must never see him again.”
Randall stared back, uncowed. “I’ve never welshed on a client yet. I’ll see you in hell first.”
“That,” admitted Stoles, shoving out his lips, “is a distinct possibility, I grant you, but one that neither you nor I would care to contemplate, save as a bombastic metaphor.”
Stoles than recounts a simply horrifying and ridiculous story, something about the Sons of the Bird, and Randall wakes up in his bed from the nightmare. He tries to shake it off, but things are getting weirder by the minute what with Hoag now telling them that he is being watched — from inside the mirror. Hoag even seems to attack Cyn the next time she follows him, and she can’t even defend herself despite having a gun. Then there’s the note neither of them wrote:
CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT.
She said nothing at all and tried to control the quivering at the pit of her stomach.
Randall asked, “Cyn, did you write that?”
“Yes.” She reached out to take it out of the machine; he checked her.
“Don’t touch it. Fingerprints.”
“All right. But I have a notion,” she said, “that you won’t find any fingerprints on that.”
When they go to Hoag’s doctor things get even stranger.
Randall hesitated, aware that the debate was going against him. Then he said, “Supposing you are right, doctor — how is it, if he is so vicious, you have not turned Hoag over to the police?”
“How do you know I haven’t? But I will answer that one, sir. No, I have not turned him over to the police, for the simple reason that it would do no good. The authorities have not had the wit nor the imagination to conceive of the possibility of the peculiar evil involved. No law can touch him—not in this day and age.”
And things are about to get stranger yet, when the Randalls discover a new full length mirror has been installed in their bedroom.
Perhaps the best thing about “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” is that it doesn’t let the reader down. Heinlein pays off in a finale that is both disturbing and a bit funny, but also profoundly disturbing. Don’t blame me if after you read it you remove the mirror from your bedroom and handcuff yourself to your loved one every night at bedtime like the Randalls.
Blame Heinlein, and Jonathan Hoag. While it isn’t horror, and you could even call it a satirical masterpiece, the story will leave you with more than a frisson in its profoundly disturbing implications. Like Fritz Leiber’s “Conjure Wife” and Jack Williamson’s “Darker Than You Think” from the same magazine the frights here lie in the implication more than the instrumentation.
It rivals Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in that, as was written of that book, it is the rare mystery where the solution to the crime is more terrifying than the crime itself.