The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Unknown Worlds, October 1942
as by John Riverside

collected in —
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
  (sometimes titled 6 X H)

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein June 2009


"Is it blood, doctor?" Jonathan Hoag moistened his lips with his tongue and leaned forward in the chair, trying to see what was written on the slip of paper the medico held.

Dr. Potbury brought the slip of paper closer to his vest and looked at Hoag over his spectacles. "Any particular reason," he asked, "why you should find blood under your fingernails?"

"No. That is to say — Well, no — there isn't. But it is blood — isn't it?"

"No," Potbury said heavily. "No, it isn't blood."

A fantasy-mystery

Robert Heinlein's "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" starts out as a mystery story. A sensitive, aristocratic man realizes that he has an unusual stain beneath his fingernails, and has no idea how it got there. He fears that it might be blood. Unable to investigate for himself, for peculiar reasons that emerge during the story, he hires detectives: Edward and Cynthia Randall, a married couple, who started out as a business partnership and remained one after they married. At this point, the Randalls, and especially Edward, become the viewpoint characters, and remain so. And in the course of their investigation the story becomes increasingly weird, building up to a final revelation.

This novella is a big departure for Heinlein in a number of ways. It's not hard science fiction, or science fiction of any kind, but fantasy. It's not set in an outer-space analog of the American frontier, but in a big city, Chicago, and in the present day. And Edward Randall isn't a technologically competent science-fictional hero; his rationality serves not to solve his problems but to try, futilely, to explain them away. What finally brings him through is his emotions: his devotion to his wife.

Glamour in the urban world

The key to "Jonathan Hoag" lies in the nature of its antagonists, the Sons of the Bird. They walk among human beings, but are not human. They have mysterious powers and can do things that defy rational explanation. They live in a hidden realm from which they can enter the mundane world at will. They enter dreams and carry off dreamers to their own realm; they create illusions and distort memories; they are, in a word, creatures of glamour, in the old magical sense of the word. Glamour is the distinctive quality of the fairies, and the Sons of the Bird are fairies of the modern, urban world. And like fairies, they're soulless, amoral, and wantonly cruel, convinced of their right to torment human beings for their convenience or amusement.

And that's the key to Edward Randall's characterization, too. As the hero of a fairy story, he gets through his agony on the strength of a good heart and true love. Heinlein has retold the story of Tam Lin, but with the sex roles interchanged. He makes it clear that Cynthia is actually the more competent of the two ... but in the end, it's Edward's devotion that saves her. And it's Edward's further inquiries that ultimately answer Hoag's question, and reveal his own true nature to him — enabling him to tell Edward and Cynthia what kind of conflict they stumbled into.

Marriage & the safe place

One of this story's appeals is its portrayal of the real substance of a marriage. The Randalls seem to be partly inspired by Nick and Nora Charles, though in a key of lower middle-class struggle rather than wealthy eccentricity. But their comedic aspects don't cover up their real attachment to each other. I was particularly struck by a paragraph early in the story:

Cynthia was already asleep when he got back; he slid into bed quietly. She snuggled up to him without waking, her body warming his. Quickly he was asleep, too.

In fact, most of "Jonathan Hoag" revolves around the Randalls' shared bed, and their departures from it and returns to it. If a horror story is about uncanny threats to what should be a safe place, the Randalls' bed is their ultimate safe place. And the story ends with their flight from Chicago before a kind of divine wrath settles on it, to re-create this safe place elsewhere — as if Lot and his wife had gotten away from Sodom, neither of them looking back, and found a home somewhere else.

What Heinlein has given us, in this story, is an early, and very dark, example of urban fantasy. That's not what we usually remember him for. But he does it well; "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is one of his more memorable stories.


© 2009 William H. Stoddard

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