I start with a bias against the murder mystery genre. In spite of its evident popularity, I don’t like stories that trivialize and sanitize violence, particularly the horrific act of murder. That said, I think Asimov’s A Whiff of Death is one of the best-constructed murder mysteries I’ve read on the Lab Lit List. It’s the kind of mystery I’d expect from the hand of a master like Asimov. And it avoids just about every stereotype there is about science and scientists as well as finessing my usual objections to a kind of character I find very annoying–the scientist as amateur sleuth. (That will be the subject of my next post.)
Dirk Wyle’s Pharmacology is Murder, on the other hand, struck me as the antithesis of A Whiff of Death. Wyle’s novel is well-written within the parameters of the mystery genre. It clearly has a place on the Lab Lit List, as well. Many of the characters are scientists pursuing realistic research in an academic setting. The scientists themselves are well portrayed and reflect the wide range of personalities and character flaws one sees in most academic science department. Their research projects when they are described in detail are also plausible. The main character is a graduate student, albeit one with atypical motivations and, most important, very unusual funding. Still, it has the shortcomings of a typical contemporary mystery that turn me off.
Like a cross-section of ordinary people, most scientists, including graduate students in the sciences, are not murderers. However, it’s no surprise that the scientist as murderer is a popular theme because scientists have access to arcane knowledge that has the potential to supply a murderer with unusual or even exotic means. But it is exactly this trait that makes scientists attractive as either culprit or sleuth. But in the hands of a novelist, it has the potential to create the stereotype that scientific knowledge comes with the temptation to use it for evil purposes. It is another example of how the scientist in today’s popular fiction has become the counterpart of the sorcerer or wizard in earlier literature.
My other complaint about Pharmacology is Murder is that the story strains my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. I recognize that this is a matter of personal preference. The strength, stamina and endurance of the protagonists of most mysteries, as well as thrillers, have more in common with ancient myths and fairy tales than with contemporary life. I don’t like being pulled into a plausible story only to be brought up short by the absurd heroics of a major character. Pharmacology is Murder drew me far into the book before the first real silliness began.
When the hero and narrator, Ben Candidi, successfully breaks into the laboratory of one of the faculty members in the middle of the night to obtain incriminating evidence for the medical examiner’s office (without being detected), the story began to lose credibility for me. And when Ben single-handedly confronts two thugs, who are looking for evidence on his boat, and takes a blow to his skull that should have sent him to the emergency room, he manages—pant, pant—to outwit them, lift their guns, photograph them for later identification and leave them swimming in the bay… Whew! What else can I say? After all that, is it a big surprise that I no longer care what happens to Ben, the girl of his dreams or even the murderer. He’s not a real person to me anymore. His story is a modern fable—entertaining, but not to be taken any more seriously than a yarn or tall tale told for a laugh.
The problem is endemic to the genre. And as far as science in fiction is concerned, Pharmacology is Murder isn’t about science; it’s about murder and mayhem. Oh, and in case you hven’t thought about what the title means, let’s hope pharmacology is not murder!