The Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz

legacy_lehrThe Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

Katherine Kurtz is better known for her fantasy, especially The Chronicles of the Deryni, as indicated on the cover of this, her only science fiction novel. Although the edition shown was published by Avon, The Legacy of Lehr is a Byron Preiss package, written by Kurtz but also featuring interior illustrations by Michael William Kaluta. (The UK hardback edition, published by Hutchinson, has especially striking cover art by Melvyn Grant, incidentally.)

Dr Wallis Hamilton and Commodre Mather Seton are a husband-and-wife team who perform assorted jobs for Prince Cedric, the emperor’s brother. As The Legacy of Lehr opens, they are preparing to ship four wild Lehr cats – giant alien blue-furred lions, essentially – captured at great cost from their home world of Beta-Geminorum II to the Imperial capital, Tersel. To do this, they’ve had a an interstellar liner, the Valkyrie, diverted to B-Gem, which has mightily pissed off its captain, Lutobo, as the ship had been embarked on a record-breaking run between two worlds, and success would have resulted in a bonus for each crew member.

The cats are transported aboard by shuttle, and their cage set up in one of the cargo holds. They are guarded by the squad of Imperial Rangers which had been on the hunt with Seton and Hamilton. However, a couple of days into the journey, a passenger is murdered, his throat slashed open and a tuft of blue fur clutched in one hand. The Lehr cats are the obvious suspects, even though they could not have escaped from their cage or eluded the Ranger sentries. But the cats are known to be slightly psychic… and who knows what other psionic powers they possess? They were, after all, worshipped by the long-dead native race of B-Gem…

Neither Hamilton nor Seton think the cats are to blame, but Lutobo wants them destroyed. As more people are murdered, and more evidence is left pointing to the cats, so Seton and Hamilton – with the help of ship’s medic Dr Shivaun Shannon – decide the cats cannot be the killers, bringing the three of them more into conflict with Lutobo. They investigate each crime, trying to figure out who the killer is and why they might be framing the cats. As murder-mysteries go, The Legacy of Lehr is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It is, essentially, a pair of nested locked-room mysteries – in which the main suspects are locked in a cage they must escape in order to commit the murders, aboard a spaceship in flight from which neither murderers nor victims cannot leave. But then, the novel doesn’t read like it was meant to be a puzzle. Kurtz trails two obvious suspect in front of the protagonists, one of which is quickly shown to be innocent. The mystery surrounding the cats’ abilities is perhaps over-used to stretch out the investigation, and the abrupt swerve into vampirism as a motive halfway through feels like over-egging the cake.

The Legacy of Lehr is a fun novel with an engaging cast. It’s also nicely diverse, with two women among the four major characters – Hamilton and Shannon – and a number of POC among the cast, including Lutobo. (Only one alien race, the Aludra, appear in the story, and they provide one of its red herring narrative threads.) The universe of the book is somewhat identikit, with a benign interstellar empire, which is chiefly characterised by pomp and bureaucracy, but in all other respects resembles generic US society. The novel also features those little telltales which show it’s heartland science fiction – ie, set in a made-up world at some indefinable date in the future which is in no way a product of our current world. It’s not just the abundance of habitable worlds, but the way the science fictional technology all fills the roles of present-day analogues – spaceship for cruise liner, for example; or data storage chips, which must be moved by hand from one device to another (no network? Really?). It’s not really a failure of imagination, because that would presuppose imagination had been spent in building the universe of the story. Like many other sf novels of its type, The Legacy of Lehr‘s universe is built-up from established tropes, and they’re deployed without commentary or any real exploration. I suppose it could be called “Ruritanian sf”, a type of genre fiction in which present-day furniture is seamlessly swapped for science-fictional equivalents, with no effort made to interrogate these tropes, because they exist only as setting.

It has been said that if a plot could be transplanted to another milieu and still work, then it wasn’t really science fiction. That’s certainly true of The Legacy of Lehr. Lions on a transatlantic cruise liner, for example. A couple of the red herrings would have to go, as lions are not known for their psychic abilities. But certainly an average person in 1986 could be gullible enough to consider a vampire, real or imagined, as a possible culprit. But these are problems with heartland sf as a whole and not specific to Kurtz’s novel. As it is, The Legacy of Lehr is an entertaining read. Hamilton and Seton were clearly designed to have various adventures – they’re troubleshooters for the Imperial House, it’s a blatant set-up for further novels… So it’s a surprise, and a pity, none ever appeared.