ROBERT SHECKLEY – Live Gold. Stephen Dain #3. Bantam J2401, paperback; 1st printing, July 1962.

   I’m not sure, but Live Gold may be unique in the annals of detective fiction. We know the villain from very early on. In fact over 90 percent of the story follows along with him on his latest arduous journey across northern Africa, circa 1951-52, with a contingent of perhaps 400 very indigent Muslims on their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.

   Or so they believe. What they do not know is that their guide, Mustapha ibn Harith, is leading them instead straight into slavery. Live gold.

   What we the reader do not know is which one the seven Europeans traveling with them is the international agent Stephen Dain. Each and every one might be the man, but neither Harith nor his sycophant assistant, a Greek named Prokopulous, can determine which one he is — and their attempts to do so form the thrust of the story.

   Robert Sheckley was, of course, far better known for his long career of writing witty and often outright comic science fiction, usually in the short story form. The wit is often present in this, Dain’s third recorded adventure. I don’t think Sheckley could have stopped himself if he had tried. It’s subtle, though, and a reader unfamiliar with his style of writing may not even notice.

   What I found amusing personally, for example, was Sheckley’s apparent fondness for place name dropping, a trend that takes place every so often throughout the book. Take this passage from page 109:

   [On] the third day of Dhu ’l-Hijja, the train had reached Kosti on the White Nile and was speeding eastward past the cotton fields of the Gezra. At noon the train passed Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile and turned north toward Medani and Khartoum.

   After a while one begins to wonder if Sheckley had ever been near any of these places. The alternative, of course, is that he had a really good atlas at his disposal.

      The Stephen Dain series —

Calibre .50 (1961)
Dead Run (1961)
Live Gold (1962)
White Death (1963)
Time Limit (1967)