It’s 77 days until an asteroid hits earth, and Henry Palace’s long-ago babysitter’s husband has gone missing. Henry Palace isn’t a police officer any more, but he agrees to help. This is the story of Countdown City, sequel to Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman.
It’s a good little mystery novel. Even though the asteroid is more imminent than in the previous book, it feels like it means less. You can tell the world has changed. Fewer people are trying to hold things together so though Palace’s investigation has smaller stakes there’s more danger to it.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the very end of the book, but that’s probably because I am very far from being true police. It’s a good story but not as Wow-inducing as the previous one. C’est la vie.
The Case of the Team Spirit (by John Allison) is the comic I’m most looking forward to booktalking for middle-school students next year. It’s about a group of six 11-year-olds (three boys, three girls) in Tackleford England (a made-up place) who solve mysteries. This mystery is about the hex that’s been put on their local football (soccer) team. This gets right to the heart of one investigator, while the rest are, well, less into football, but they do like their friend.
These characters are funny, and all of them are clever. The supporting characters, also great. I have a special affinity for Mr. Beckwith the young teacher who has this exchange with one of our detectives:
Charlotte: Sir how come you got rid of your beard?
Mr. Beckwith: My wife said it was scratching her.
Charlotte: Worr sir you are married?
Mr. Beckwith: Yeah I got a wife… am I giving away too much? Maybe I just have a piano. I didn’t want to scratch the piano with my chin.
Charlotte:Sir can I sit down on account of being confused?
Mr. Beckwith: Yes Charlotte.
Though Bad Machinery is a webcomic which you can read for free on a screen, the book is a beautiful widescreen kind of thing about the same size (and orientation) as a laptop screen. But it is batteryless.
So yes. Great stuff, and you will learn Britishisms.
The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney is another murder mystery with no science fictional elements to it at all. I know! How crazy for me. This one is set in England in the 1980s but not very obviously. Ray Lovell is the private detective who’s hired to find a Romany woman who disappeared 6 years ago after her wedding. He has some of “the strong black blood” in him himself, which is, in the mind of his client, supposed to give him an edge in finding her.
The other point of view character is a young Romany boy who lives in a group of trailers with his mom and extended family, including his uncle, who was the missing girl’s husband and the father to their sickly young boy.
It’s a good story, with a protagonist who is his own enemy (but not worst) and some interesting investigation goes on. There’s sort of a framing device of Ray being in the hospital after a car crash, but I don’t know how necessary it really was.
All in all, not a bad story, and I quite enjoyed the conclusion, even though it felt like it was trying a little too hard to be clever. Hard to hold that against a whodunnit though.
In my days shelving books as a page I knew Simenon’s Maigret books by their profusion of little spines. This is the first time I’ve ever read one. It was an old-style mystery wherein Maigret smokes a pipe and figures out what’s happened in a small French town in the 1940s. Maigret seems to have few jurisdictional problems despite being a Parisian police officer. There wasn’t much to it do delight me, but it didn’t make me angry either. It felt very much like the kind of thing Jessica Fletcher would have written.
The weirder part of this book is how I came to read it. I was at a local farmer’s market and one of the owners of the used book stall asked what I was reading. Always curious about other people’s reader’s advisory techniques I said I was between books and looking for something new. She asked if I was “a sophisticated reader” which struck me as odd. Maybe “sophisticated” doesn’t actually have a value judgment inherent in the word, but it still seems a loaded thing to ask a reader to identify as. And then, even using my humble disavowal of any pretensions towards especial sophistication, this was the book she recommended.
I can’t see anything terribly special about this book that would require someone to self identify as sophisticated in order to read it. It didn’t require any special knowledge or the ability to deal with complicated narrative forms or anything. I mean, if something requires a “sophisticated” reader I’d expect it to be something more complicated and have a bit more oomph to it than a knotty whodunnit.
Rule 34 is the kind of Charles Stross book I like. It’s Edinburgh in the future and spammers are dying in graphic ways, seemingly dreamed up in 4chan. Liz Kavanaugh is a police detective whose career is in the shitter, trolling the internet for memes that could become dangerous, and she gets pulled into the investigation.
The book is told in second person for the most part, putting the reader into a lot of different characters’ places including a non-neurotypical mobster with something terrifying in his suitcase. And seriously, though nothing is described with slasher-movie levels of glee at depravity, this is the sort of book that could probably use trigger warnings.
One of the big ideas in this book (that I don’t remember from Halting State, but could very well have been there too) is that Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Rebus and whatever are a load of bollocks in terms of modern criminal investigation. In the future, good detectives are no longer the hyper-observant individual. That’s what computers are for. Good detectives in the future are good managers of people and IT to get all the cogs working together. There’s a lot of great ideas throughout the book, and not decades-old thoughts about how scary Artificial Intelligence would be.
If you don’t like second-person narration and thoughts on the future of criminality and stock manipulation this probably isn’t a great choice for you to read. But if that doesn’t turn you off and you like thinking about Makerbots and the seamy underbelly of future economies, it’s a must-read.
I’ve probably mentioned before how rare it is for me to read a straight-up mystery (and not some sort of science fiction noir type thing) but that’s exactly what Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is. A man died in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. The newly-minted detective is the only person who doesn’t think it was a suicide. Investigation ensues.
The only complication is that in just over 6 months the world as we know it will end when Earth is hit by a huge asteroid.
So the book is a twisty little mystery involving insurance fraud and drugs and bad coffee in police briefing rooms, but also a look at why even do police-work when the world will soon be ending. Who really cares how one person ended up dead when six months from now everyone will be.
Now that little complication might, in your mind, vault the book into the science fiction category, but it really isn’t. The asteroid is affecting people because they’re all aware of their mortality, but it’s not causing tidal waves or changing the weather or making people flee to the Himalayas or shooting Bruce Willis off into space. It’s something that’s happening, just like war is something that happens in other stories.
I really liked the book even though it’s not my usual science fiction and in spite of the fact it’s the first in a trilogy. (SPOILER: The case is resolved and the book ends still many months before the asteroid hits, leaving room for the next books to remain pre-apocalyptic).
The Surrogates is a science fiction mystery set in a future where people can sit in the privacy of their own room and teleoperate a surrogate to go out and interact with the real world for them. When you’re operating the surrogate you’re feeling what it feels and doing what it does, but without exposing your real self to danger.
What makes this book great is how Robert Venditti gets into what this would mean for a world. It turns most of our major crimes into property crimes, since a murder of a surrogate is basically like totalling someone’s car. People took up smoking again because all of the carcinogens accumulate in the surrogate’s body, leaving the real you with lungs pink like the insides of babies.
The story follows a police detective on the trail of a murderer who might be a terrorist, and gets at the heart of what this technology means. There’s an anti-surrogate political group, and a murderer who can do things no one has ever seen before. Also, between each issue in the trade paperback there are news reports or advertisements or academic papers that help to flesh out the world (much like you might remember from Watchmen, though there’s no parallel pirate story going on here), which are done superbly.
Venditti and Wendele did a great job with this book. I know there was a movie version fairly recently but didn’t see it. It seems like it’d be very easy to simplify it too much for the sake of good visuals. If the movie’s worth seeing let me know!
Andy Mulligan’s Trash is a YA book about three scavenger kids living in a junkyard who find something extremely valuable in the trash that launches a big, but personal mystery. I liked it a lot.
It had shifting viewpoint characters who were expressly telling the reader the story. Usually it stuck with the main three boys, but we also got to see bits of the story from the priest’s perspective and that of the British girl who was volunteering in the unnamed country (while reading I was picturing Mexico, but the afterword indicates it was based on a place in Manila).
Things I really liked about the book: the boys were clever and tough, but didn’t feel superhuman. The authorities also weren’t stupid, which made the boys’ victories against the police well-earned. It was a connect-the-dots kind of mystery plot, but my favourite part of that was a throwaway line about how they never did manage to decipher part of the code. The whole thing felt much more personal than a story about government corruption had any real right to be, so kudos to Mulligan.
The only thing that I wish it had was a stronger female character. The women in the story either get duped or get rescued or get the boys into the whole mess, which is a bit of a shame.
On the cover of Chan Koonchung’s novel The Fat Years there’s a subtitle reading: “The novel no one in China dares publish.” Le sigh. The book’s publishing history in other places doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the book itself. It’s also funny that I’ve seen it billed as a dystopian science fiction novel, whereas for the most part to me it resembled actual China. There were exaggerations, yes, but this is not the stuff of 1984 (there is an element of Brave New World in it, since as far as I know [SPOILER ALERT] China doesn’t actually lace its water supply with trace amounts of Ecstasy). Mostly though, the book served as an interesting look at how modern China exists.
The first two thirds of the book follow a series of characters in Beijing, but mostly Lao Chen, a writer from Taiwan. An acquaintance of his meets him on the street asking about the missing month they’ve experienced as China experienced its ascendancy. The rest of the world’s economy collapsed, you see, but China managed to get through and everyone is so happy and self satisfied. The book is mostly about trying to figure out why and what happened.
The last third of the book is more like an essay from the mouth of a government official explaining what happened and why and how. If you don’t care about Chinese politics and media and such, this part will likely be terribly dull, but if you do care, it’s fascinating. I liked it a lot, despite its hyperbolic claims of how no one in China dare reads it.