Three to Conquer (Call Him Dead) (1955) by Eric Frank Russell

More Chandleresque sci-fi detective fic. It’s everywhere!


A great scene. That never happened.

“Because I made mental contact with Jocelyn Whittingham and she promptly called me an insulting name. So I shot her.”

“You considered that adequate motive for murder?” prompted Jameson.

“In view of the name, yes!”

“What did she call you?”

“A terrestrial bastard,” informed Harper, hard-eyed. (60)

Murderous Venusian pathogens always give themselves away with their planetist epithets. An important lesson for all: Never, NEVER, call someone a terrestrial bastard.

The guy doing the shooting is the hero detective, by the way.

Originally titled Call Him Dead in the 1955 serialization in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, I can’t help but wonder what the hell these titles even mean. I suspect Russell is going for the cold thriller style, but both title variants (Call Him Dead and Three to Conquer) are so generic and vague, I’ll never remember the name of this book once it’s shelved for good.

It’s full of generic American names, too—Harper, Norris, Riley—I can’t remember who anybody is. This is often a problem for me with American detective novels, which is funny because Russell is British.

*flips pages to locate protagonist’s name*

Three to Conquer1

I know you’re thinking “that look on his face doesn’t even fit the situation,” but all I’m thinking is, “that goldenrod cardigan has got to go.”

Wade Harper can hear people’s thoughts (within a reasonable proximity, depending on the plot’s need), and so he plays recreational detective as he “stumbles upon” unsavory crime situations. Cops love him and hate him, but he’s desperate to hide his telepathic abilities, out of fear that he will become the hunted if he’s discovered. So far, people just think he has an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time.

But now, three Venusian body snatchers are roaming the east coast murdering people. Although we don’t really know that for sure until the middle of the book, and by that point, they’ve become more than three, so it’s not really Three to Conquer, now is it?. And it’s up to Wade Harper to find them AND convince the authorities of the alien threat.

Three to Conquer. Meh. Call Him Dead. Meh. What would I call it?

The Not-So-Private Eye, maybe.


He had his code of ethics developed since early childhood; he did not listen to private musings except when circumstances impelled him to do so. (45)

EXCEPT HE DOES! LIKE ALL THE TIME! (and can we please rewrite that awful sentence?)

Three paragraphs later:

From seventy yards away, he probed her, seeking confirmation of her identity… (45)

Okay, ignoring the loaded dirty joke we all see there, he is doing an investigation, so maybe it’s legit thought-peeping, but what about his secretary, Moira, whom he “probes” often enough to know that “she wished he were ten inches taller and ten years younger” (35). Despite his firm ethics, “he often could not avoid seeing. He was guilty of invasion of privacy twenty times per day…” (35).

But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps we’re expected to question Harper’s position as a secret telepath in paranoid, McCarthy era American society. Harper uses his powers to manipulate the FBI and higher governmental powers to get what he needs, and, as cited in that first quote, he blows off due process and shoots a woman (alien, whatever) dead. (Not like that’s a big deal. Law enforcement do that every day, so the fact that nothing happens to him is entirely believable.) He’s paranoid about his telepathic skills, yet he puts himself in positions that attract attention to it. Maybe we should call it…

Mental Probes, yeah…

Or, better yet,

Psychic Dick:

 “All right, Mrs. Clague. We’re sorry to trouble you but these things happen. If you’re not too busy how about fixing some coffee?”

Still somewhat bewildered, she agreed, retreated to the kitchen as if glad to escape their questions. Winnie slopped along behind her, turned twice to look back with a bovine smile before she too disappeared. Norris frowned after her.

“What was that slut smirking at?” he asked.

“You,” Harper informed. “She about I.Q. 70 but that doesn’t spoil her appetite for a tasty hunk of man. It’s what comes of being a handsome Fed.” (131)

I’ll just let that hang there.

Three to conquer 2

Not even close, Penguin.

The most surprising thing about this book is that it comes with a prologue. Written by Jack L. Chalker, who praises Russell’s talent and compares Three to Conquer to Raymond Chandler (the flavor is there, but I’ve already talked about the kind of Chandleresque stuff I like) and John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, which is a good deal more fun and psychologically gripping. In comparison, this feels like a blow off book, the prologue unnecessary, the comparisons a little too grandiose.

Hmmm… The Big Creep-er, maybe?

Or, The Short Goodb– BLAM BLAM! You’re Dead!

The Man Who Knows Who Goes There, perhaps?

Personally, I like Terrestrial Bastards. For the many layers of meaning, you know.

Better suggestions?

20 thoughts on “Three to Conquer (Call Him Dead) (1955) by Eric Frank Russell

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    That excerpt under Psychic Dick, though. What did I just read x_x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steph says:

    Your reviews always make me laugh. I love your sense of humor….and those quotes…just fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh my pod this review made me laugh so hard on the train this morning. Great alternative titles. Hahahaha. Oh god I am never ever reading this.

    Just say no to goldenrod cardigans.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Widdershins says:

    Nooooo! No hanging tasty feds!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Peter S says:

    What’s that he’s wearing with the cardigan, some kind of bowtie?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Joseph Nebus says:

    Well, you know, that hardbitten amoral sulky private detective talk is catchy. Maybe Russell was just getting over a bad case of having read Mickey Spillane.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. […] serendipity would have it, my next book reviewed was Eric Frank Russell’s Three to Conquer (1955) which was MORE CRIME FIC SF! AND THE GUY CALLS A LOW-IQ WOMAN A SLUT! So I just spent the […]


  8. […] Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell – Just your basic telepathic detective tale. Nothing special. […]


  9. Dave James says:

    Probably the best sci-fi book I have ever read ‘several times’ over the last sixty years… the reviewer doesn’t know what he is talking about here. Eric Frank Russell’s classic and original story was heralded as a masterpiece for its time (the fifties) and set a path that plenty of others have followed but with less quality… but then a sequel is generally less than the original! To the lady that said she would not read it because of the reviewers down south comments, well, your loss; continue reading the current crop of dross discribed as sci-fi. Three to Conquer; the three missing space explorers (not really difficult to comprehend eh!) well worth ***** and I have two copys in case I lose one ^

    Liked by 1 person

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