Shooting for the Stars

He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.
- Leonardo da Vinci.
When the 1960s rolled around, a distinguished London publisher, Collins, instituted a competition for the best detective novel from the hands of a university don and assigned Agatha Christie, C.D. Lewis and Julian Symons to jury duty. They had to weigh the merits against the drawbacks of the entries and make case-by-case decisions, which had a most favorable outcome for Message from Sirius (1961) as it picked up the grand prize. It was written by Cecil Jenkins, who lectured French at Exeter University, and praised by Christie as "both exciting and original" and described by Symons as "that great rarity, a truly original crime novel." Did my opinion on this book align with the experts? Lets find out!

Message from Sirius centers on the shocking death of Tony Bayre, a pop-star who's described as being bigger than Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards and James Dean rolled into one, murdered at his club when he was presenting the public at large with his latest work, "Nuclear Ecstasy," during a grotesque performance that's depicted on the cover of the Bantam edition. It's almost a shame, though, that such an intriguing illustration has such a mundane and simple explanation with no actual bearing on the plot. 

The out-of-this-world imagery of the cover (in combination with the title) must have tempted a few SF-fans into buying a copy on a whim, expecting to find a science-fiction yarn about two stranded space travelers menaced by the skeleton remains of an extinct alien race, brought back to life by the cosmic rays of the titular star, instead of a dark and off-beat police procedural – which is exactly what this book is.

The man in charge of this high-profile case is Superintendent Marc Ireland and he has a cast of prominent suspects that include a race car driver, a Secretary of Defense, a wealthy magnate, a popular actress, a member of the aristocracy, a member of Brain Trusts and a newspaper writer, but then one of the papers receives a letter from someone claiming to have been the one who shot Tony Bayre's rising star from the sky and signed the confession with the name "Sirius" – the brightest star in the night sky of the Northern Hemisphere.

Carl Sagan: "The stars call to us..."
They soon receive a follow-up letter prophesizing another murder and the hunt for Sirius is on! Or is it? I hate to admit it, but Symons was right when he called this a truly original crime novel, however, how beneficial this was to the overall story is up to the individual reader. I was dropped off at the final chapter feeling as mixed-up as Ireland's priorities in this case. At times, he seemed more concerned with the people around him than with apprehending a murderer who intends to strike again and the writing-style had tendency to be a bit confusing.

However, Cecil Jenkins did not draw on the past for this book and this proved to be my folly when I came up with a solution based on two old plot-devices. Heck, I was so convinced that my solution was correct that I was already mentally reprimanding Christie and Symons for calling this book "original" and "a rarity." The circumstances of the murders suggested to me that Jenkins had cut patches from the plots of Conan Doyle's “The Problem of Thor Bridge” (1922) and Nicholas Blake’s Thou Shell of Death (1936) and sewn them together, but this proved not to be the case and he came up with a completely different answer – as well as a somewhat original motive that reflected the rapidly changing world they were living in at the time. 
It's not a gobsmack of an ending or even all that clever (from a puzzle-plot perspective), but if you are a jaded reader who wants something different from a crime novel than it's definitely worth the effort to hunt down a copy of this curio.


  1. C.D. Lewis? A musical relative of C.S. Lewis perhaps? I'm "godsmacked"!

  2. I think C.D. Lewis was Cecil-Day Lewis, poet and writer, who also published mystery novels under the penname "Nicholas Blake." Sorry for not mentioning this in the review.

  3. There's a polite way to correct some typos and there's the anonymous "amusing" way to correct someone. I'd fix your typos and then delete that patronizing comment above, TomCat.

    Thanks for writing about an unusual book I have never heard of. Any sci-fi mystery that impressed Agatha is AOK with me. I'll be hunting down a copy of this.

  4. I'm afraid you have to spell it out, John, because I have no idea what typo you two are talking about... I pulled my copy from the shelve again and the back cover clearly states that one of the jury members was C.D. Lewis.

    And nothing in that comment was meant to be patronizing. :-/

  5. Gobsmack - astonishment or surprise. Godsmack - a heavy metal band or a heroin overdose that kills. Which did you mean in the final paragraph? I'm happy Anonymous was wrong about the "other typo" he supposedly found. Had I seen your reply about C. Day-Lewis I would never have left that portion in my comment.

  6. Oh, is that all, I was beginning to think I had done something mind boggling stupid and was very conscientious about my horrendous typing skills for a moment. I will immediate turn that "d" around.