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I'm trying to remember who wrote a story (I think a novella, probably dating from the 1950's or 1960's) that I read in a collection.

The alien hero (a university lecturer) is tasked by his emperor with collecting a human for his zoo. The hero explains that there are time-honoured rules about this sort of thing, and that he can only snatch someone if they are 'evil'.

The story continues with the hero's arrival (with an assistant) in some American town, disguised as as a rich, eccentric, immigrant/refugee, eager to get to hear all the gossip, and quickly able to decide that the prime contenders for the distinction are: the mayor, the police chief, a local car mechanic, and the the town drunk!

The decision should be easy: they are equipped with a collecting box that will only open when a suitably evil specimen touches the door. However, in a series of one-on-one interviews, none of the humans triggers the box, and the hero discovers that he simply likes them.

The assistant is much less punctilious, is prepared to simply bundle someone into the box — and thus is collected (a very satisfying moment). The hero decides to cut ties with their empire, and simply try to make the local's lives more bearable.

The mayor and the police chief were shown as decent-enough men, trying to do their best, but the mechanic was shown as a man trapped by his reputation, and the alcoholic as a man trapped by his disease. The hero, wanting to improve things, becomes a partner in a new garage, to allow the mechanic a fresh start, and funds the alcoholic's trip to a detox center.

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    Feb 23, 2023 at 23:28

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The story is "The Rule of the Door" by Lloyd Biggle, Junior.

(I think a novella, probably dating from the 1950's or 1960's) that I read in a collection.

It's classified as a novelette. It was originally published in Galaxy February 1958, and has appeared in several collections. One is the 1967 The Rule of the Door and Other Fanciful Regulations. My copy is in The Silent Sky, whose cover is shown in the link.

The alien hero (a university lecturer)

Professor Skarn Skukarn twisted abruptly on the billowy expanse of his bed and sat up. [...] His lecture notes lay stacked neatly on his desk.

is tasked by his emperor with collecting a human for his zoo.

He hesitated. His own wrist band tingled sharply, almost painfully. With a sudden surge of panic he understood what it was that had awakened him. He bounded away, scrambled back to the lectern to announce, “To be continued,” pressed the cancellation button, and hurried off to his own viewer.

The Prime Minister’s face stared out at him, alarmingly pale, haggard, eyelashes crinkly with fatigue. Skarn could easily guess who it was that had disturbed his sleep. The Prime Minister scowled and said enviously, “You are looking well, Skarn.”

“Likewise,” Skarn murmured politely.

“I am not looking well. I am looking miserable. I’m tired.”

“Naturally,” Skarn agreed.

“An Imperial Assignment. You will begin at once.”

[...]

“A patrol ship has discovered another inhabited planet. His Imperial Majesty desires a specimen of the dominant life form for the Royal Collection.”

The hero explains that there are time-honoured rules about this sort of thing

There is a longish passage where the Prime Minister explains that the Rule of the Door applies. Knowledge of the Rule's content has been lost, so the hero's job is not only to capture an alien life-form, but to "rediscover the content of the Rule of the Door" and "to follow it scrupulously".

and that he can only snatch someone if they are 'evil'.

This is difficult. I don't know whether there are different versions of the story, but in mine, the first explanation of the rule only implies "evil". It doesn't state it. This is the passage which implies it: the hero is describing information he's found after an exhausting search through archives.

“In his inestimable wisdom, the Great Kom realized that the disruption of the life process of an intelligent being was not a project to be undertaken impulsively. He formulated a series of maxims: ‘Spare the humble one, for his nature is sublime. Spare the wise one, for his nature is rare. Spare the one who loves others more than himself, for love is the ultimate meaning of life. Spare the head of a family, for his loss would injure many. Spare the weak, for their weakness renders them harmless. Spare the generous, for their acts merit generosity.’ There is much more. Some of it I do not understand.”

Explicit mention of evil only comes later, once the hero is on Earth. Dialogue such as the below shows that the hero (i.e. Skarn) is concerned with the attribute:

Afterward, Dork stormed angrily about the laboratory while Skarn restudied his reports. “The detective agency is in error,” Skarn announced. “Those men are not evil.”

“They’re evil,” Dork said, “but they’re important. They have positions of responsibility. The Door may consider that.”

The story continues with the hero's arrival (with an assistant) in some American town, disguised as as a rich, eccentric, immigrant/refugee, eager to get to hear all the gossip

Skarn Skukarn, Jonathan Skarn to the citizens of Centertown, took up his residence in the new house on a crisp fall day and led a newly arrived, shivering assistant on a tour of inspection. Skarn’s pleasure in the house was more than offset by his displeasure with the assistant. The squat, ill-tempered Dork Diffack was grumpy, insulting and generally obnoxious.

Skarn organises an "open house", and the "entire population of Centertown and the surrounding countryside turned out" for it. "The wooded hill was packed with cars, the highway was lined with parked cars, and the State Police had to call in reinforcements to keep traffic moving."

Gossip isn't explicitly mentioned at this stage, but it's clear that Skarn wants to know about the guests:

Upstairs in the laboratory, Dork disgustedly watched their antics in a viewer and kept a sharp eye on his humming instruments; and at the end of the day he announced to Skarn that they had collected sufficient data.

the prime contenders for the distinction are: the mayor, the police chief, a local car mechanic, and the town drunk!

He read the four reports again. The Honorable Ernest Schwartz, Mayor of Centertown.

[...]

He turned to the next report. Sam White, Centertown Chief of Police.

[...]

Jim Adams, the Centertown drunk.

[...]

Elmer Harley, a ne’er-do-well mechanic. A good mechanic, it was said, when he worked at it.

I'll stop here, for the moment anyway, but the above is proof that this is the story. You have an impressive memory!

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    Oh, excellent! Being reminded how clever Lloyd Biggle Junior could be is a bonus. One of those authors, like John Wyndham or James White or James Schmitz, who I remember as singularly adult.
    – Barnaby
    Feb 21, 2023 at 17:05

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