book review: hammers on bone

Hammers on Bone is a monstery noir story by Cassandra Khaw. The 100 or so pages was exactly the right length for this kind of detective tale. A PI gets a job, to kill this kid’s father, who’s doing monstrous things. The PI is a mythos creature wearing a human skin. The PI investigates. The scenes are all exactly the right length and the straightforwardness of the plot allows the language to evoke a weird world. I especially enjoyed Khaw’s use of Lovecraftian mythos to tell a story that had a different feel from, say a Delta Green technothriller. It’s got a lighter touch, without being silly.

One of my colleagues thought this might be the first in a series (and research indicates the series is called Persons Non Grata) but it looks like this is the only one out so far. I will keep my eyes open for the next.

book review: countdown city

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.

book review: the invisible ones

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.

book review: gun with occasional music

Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music is a scifi noir story very heavy on the noir. In a world with uplifted kangaroos and apes and accelerated-development babies, Conrad Metcalf is trying to solve a murder. And then another and another. He’s an ex-cop and has his custom drugs to keep him feeling the exact right level of ennui and tenacity, while the victims and witnesses take drugs to forget. It’s pretty great.

One of the things I really like about the book is the dual economic systems going on. There’s money and there’s karma. Karma is what the cops take away when you do bad things, and what you get given when you’re a model citizen. It’s a bit more centralized than Cory Doctorow’s Whuffle but you can see the connective strands. The thing is that when your karma hits zero you go into a freezer, and are removed from society for a while, which makes my favourite part of the book possible.

[SPOILERS] About 3/4 of the way through the book Conrad pisses off enough people he gets tossed in the freezer for six years. This is awesome for the story because when he gets out it’s like that time passed overnight. He’s even more dogged about solving his case now that everyone else has had years to deal with the aftermath. [/SPOILERS]

So yes, definitely recommended especially if you liked George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Falls

book review: wolfhound century

Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century is kind of a spy/detective novel mashed up with a fantastical element in a world whose moon has shattered and angels fell to earth. I liked it, but it didn’t grab my innards the way I’d hoped it would.

There are two parts to the book. The first is about an investigation in this fantasy-tinged Russian city filled with agents-provocateur, anarchists and artists. This stuff I loved. The powerful people are assholes and Lom the detective is a prototypical noir detective in this pseudo-Soviet state. It’s great.

Then it spins into something overtly mythical magical and blatant rather than tinged with magic. This big magical plot doesn’t resolve itself and I assume it’s planned as a trilogy at least. That bugs me. The change in Lom 3/4 of the way through the story also bugs me a bit. He starts off as a hard-boiled provincial detective out of his element but pursuing leads in the case he was given. By the end he’s definitely not that any more. There’s a lot of stuff that happens that undermines the “lone man against an impenetrable totalitarian fantasy state” vibe I wanted out of the book (and got from the beginning).

But it’s a decent beginning to a story that I’ll probably like when it’s all put together eventually. As it is, it’s too much of a first act for my liking.

book review: gun machine

Gun Machine is the new book by Warren Ellis and it is great. It’s less weird than Crooked Little Vein, but is a tight little police story you can tell is from the same guy who wrote Fell.

John Tallow is a New York City cop who accidentally finds an apartment full of guns. Not just a few shelves of them, but guns arrayed on the walls and floor like a shrine. Once they start getting analyzed it becomes clear that this isn’t just a gun nut’s shack; each weapon has been used in an unsolved NYC murder. Investigation ensues.

There’s a lot to love about this book. Tallow is a detective who is very believable in his “just going through the motions” before he starts working the case. Ellis writes likable foul-mouthed weirdos as Tallow’s sort-of assigned partners. The story (and the case) moves quickly, but it works. I bought that this didn’t need to be five seasons of a TV series (though The Wire made me right at home with the police politics on display in the story). There are a few coincidences at work that might make your eyebrow raise but Ellis is playing fair with you. It all works.

My least favourite part is the Native American history that gets bandied about, and that was mostly because I know Warren Ellis is an Englishman and this stuff is easy to get wrong. But anything here is way less problematic from my point of view than Johnny Depp as Tonto.

Though Pappa Warren writes great violence — “From his vantage, three steps back and to the right, Tallow could see Rosato’s eye a good five inches outside Rosato’s head and still attached to his eye socket by a mess of red worms.” — I think my favourite bit of pure wordsmithery was a cooking scene late in the book. There are all these details that work into Tallow’s mental state and the realization he has works so well with them, I wanted to applaud.

It’s a pretty quick read so if you’re not a huge Warren Ellis fan, you might want to go for an ebook edition, but the jacket design is great. There’s also a website with some interesting supplemental materials.

book review: rule 34

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.