How can one resist a title like The Robot Detective, written in 1932, when robots were so de la mode? Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. [Rossum’s Universal Robots] was first produced in 1921, and translated into English in 1923, introducing the term robot to the English language and spawning a flood of fiction featuring these new, intriguing but threatening machines. By 1932, one would hope that authors had managed to incorporate robots into their fiction in a scientifically meaningful way, and where better to employ the mechanical brainpower of a robotic intelligence than in criminal detection? Mabel Broughton Billett was certainly aware of the concept of robotic technology, but not of the science. Her “robot detective” incorporates punch-card technology and a mechanical analysis machine, but with less than satisfactory results.
Punch-card technology was first used by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, of weaving fame, in France in the very early 1800s, and was a well-known technology by the 1890s. The first mechanical analysis machine, which ultimately became known as “The Difference Engine,” was described by a German scientist, Johann H. von Müller in 1786, but never fully designed. In 1822, British Charles Babbage took up the project, and by the 1860s a number of scientists, both British and German, had produced plans and prototypes of mechanical analytic machines: the precursors of modern-day computers. Thus began the literary interest in “thinking machines,” an interest that Billett obviously was aware of and exploited in The Robot Detective. What is most troubling about her use of robotic technology, though, is that her robot does not actually do anything. Her detective, retired police officer Major Michael Kettlewell, feeds his hand-written biographical cards into the computer, which discusses the case with him; he then runs away and solves the crime. There is no obvious output from the machine that facilitates his investigation. Billett is explicit–repeatedly so–in noting that his “robot detective” is based on “the German ‘Meldwesen’, the great man-hunting Robot of Berlin” (52), which as far as I can determine did not exist. Given the extremely peripheral involvement of the detecting machine in the solution of Billett’s crime, The Robot Detective is, as a science fiction novel, rather a failure. As a detective novel, however, it is a bit stronger.
The story centres around a double murder committed in the peaceful, independent town of Glenlogan in the interior of British Columbia in the early 1930s. Glenlogan has a “tourist park” that houses itinerant workers and travellers, and the most obvious suspect in the crime is an “Aussie who has been sleeping in the tourist park for the last two weeks” (24). Billett spins her tale well, leaving us aware of whom to suspect, but without ample evidence to convict in our minds until all is revealed in the final scenes. Unlike Agatha Christie, though, Billett’s scenes are not set in a parlour but in the hills of the Nicola Valley and a hidden inlet on Vancouver Island. Herein lies the greatest interest in the novel for me, personally: the landscape.
When the Aussie is first suspected, Major Kettlewell and his mandatory sidekick Sergeant Whitehead discuss the possibilities of the Aussie’s exit from the valley:
“There are only three ways he can get out of the valley.”
“Yes, sir. And if he had taken the Nicola road he would have met the stage … he couldn’t use the lake road at night … And he hasn’t gone through Kamloops by day, nor been seen at any point on the Fraser highway.”
“Have you wired Grand Prairie?”
“Yes, sir. He’s not been there.”
“No sign of him in Princeton, sir.” (25)
I don’t think there is a reference to Princeton, BC, in any other fictional work; imagine the joy of finding your little nothing of a town thus immortalized! And Princeton is not alone. The novel is cholk full of references to small British Columbia towns–many of which no longer exist–that were part of my (and many others’) youth and heritage. How could I resist being immersed in a novel that took place in the ghost towns of my youth before they were peopled only by ghosts?
Later in the novel, the antagonist gives his cronies the slip and “walking back to Granite Creek with his wife, had flagged the train” to escape with the loot (285).
Granite Creek (which I knew as “Granite City”) is a small settlement about half a mile from the larger but still minuscule settlement of Coalmont, BC (current population about 100). In the 1980s, there were still a few derelict cabins and the wall of a hotel standing. Now there is nothing. But the site is still part of British Columbia mining history; I myself have gold dust from Granite Creek, panned with my father when I was young. In 1932, Granite Creek was a destination that British Columbia readers would have recognized. They would have been able to situate the fictional Glenlogan, 52 miles from Princeton (284) –as far as I can tell, near current-day Merritt–within the real valleys that Billett uses as her setting. Towns like Grand Prairie, Brookmere, Allison, and Dot… are all real communities that few people today recognize. The setting, far more than the plot or the technological elements, makes Billett’s The Robot Detective worth reading and remembering.