Friday, October 30, 2015

Do androids dream of electric detectives?

Made to Kill, by Adam Christopher (L.A. Trilogy, Book 1; Tor Books, November 3, 2015)

In this alternative version of 1965 Los Angeles, the great experiment of doing menial jobs with "machine men" is over. Raymond Electromatic, a whole new model of machine man, rolled off the line just when the government shut down the experiment and all its products. Now Raymond is the world's last––and only––robot.

Raymond and his wisecracking computer partner, Ada, are the creations of scientist Dr.Thornton, who sets up Ada as the back-office brains and Raymond as the front-office muscle in the Electromatic Detective Agency. Once Thornton has passed on, their prime directive is to make money. Ada has figured out that murder for hire is a lot more lucrative than private detection, so now Ray's real job is hit-robot.

But here's the thing. Even though Ray was top of the line for his time, that doesn't mean he and Ada are all that advanced in some ways. When I say Ada is the back-office brains, I mean her hardware takes up nearly all the space in the back office. Ray's hard-wired with lots of fundamental knowledge, but his short-term memory runs on a tape that he has to give back to Ada every night for her to add to her racks of day-memory tapes. He starts each day with a clean tape and no memory of what he did the day before.

Ray's memory limitation is no problem for a hit-robot who's supposed to do an in-and-out kill on the occasional evening, but it's a drawback for a private detective. Still, Ray takes on a new case when that classic plot device of hardboiled fiction, the damsel in distress, walks through the agency's frosted-glass door. This dame offers Ray a big bag of gold bars if he'll eliminate Hollywood actor Charles David, no questions asked.

Ray's a bit of a movie buff, so he's interested in a case that takes him into Hollywood. What he didn't bargain for is finding a weird sort of cult among the movie world's upper crust. This group seems to be planning something really big; something involving Russians. And even though this is an alternative 1965, Russians are just as ominous as they were in our 1965.

Adam Christopher's goal here seems to be to write a Raymond Chandler novel with a robot protagonist. (I doubt it's coincidence that the robot protagonist and Chandler have the same first name.) And he does it fairly well. The hardboiled dialog is there, and Ray's deadpan wit makes him a believable mechanical Marlowe.

Compared to Chandler, though, this is more lightweight fare, a quick, fun read. And it's best to treat it that way and not think too much about the fact that most of the time there's not a compelling reason in the way the story is presented to have Ray be a robot at all. Or that there are way too many sentences including the words "I frowned on the inside" or someone "made a sound like" a cement mixer, a beehive, steam engine brakes, a cat pawing at a mouse inside an air vent, two rocks going for a joyride in a clothes washer, a garbage truck grinding its gears, a sewing machine on overdrive, a clutch slipping and at least a couple of dozen other things. I also would have liked to see more development of the alternative world of 1965, other than just a couple of tantalizing glimpses.

Still, I had fun reading the story, despite its significant drawbacks. The tone is funny with an edge, I grew fond of Ray and the time zipped by as I read. One other thing I should mention; though this is billed as the first in a trilogy, it stands on its own, so there is none of that cliffhanger stuff that makes me want to throw a book against the wall.

Note: I received a free advance review copy of the book. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Review of Ian Caldwell's The Fifth Gospel

The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell (Simon & Schuster, March 3, 2015)

Father Alex Andreou is a Greek Catholic priest, which means that he is a subject of the Roman Catholic pope, but otherwise follows the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church. As a Greek Catholic priest, he was allowed to enter the priesthood as a married man.

The priesthood is Alex’s family business and the Vatican is his world. His father was the seventh in a generational line of Greek Catholic priests. Alex lives in his childhood apartment in Vatican City, along with his five-year-old son, Peter. Alex’s wife, Mona, suffered a breakdown from postpartum depression not long after Peter’s birth and left her family.

Alex’s adored older brother, Simon, is a charismatic Roman Catholic priest who is a Vatican diplomat. Like his father and then Pope John Paul, his passionate ambition is to heal the centuries-long schism between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. At the time this novel is set, the Pope is crippled with Parkinson’s disease and nearing his death, but still absorbed with this goal of rejoining the sects.

A Greek Catholic priest and his family
Alex and Peter are in their apartment, eagerly awaiting a visit from Simon when he calls, evidently distraught, and asks for Alex to meet him at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat, where Alex is shocked to find Simon with the corpse of Ugo Nogara, a museum curator.

Ugo is an old friend of Simon’s whom Alex was tutoring in Gospel theology to help Ugo with an exhibit at the Vatican about the Shroud of Turin. Years earlier, the Shroud had been claimed by scientists to be carbon-dated as being from medieval times and could not have been the burial shroud of Jesus. Ugo promises his exhibit will shatter what the world thought it knew about the Shroud. As if the murder isn’t enough of a shock, Alex and Simon return to Alex’s apartment to find that someone has come into the apartment and rifled Alex’s belongings, while Peter and his caretaker cowered in the bedroom closet.

With Simon reluctant to fill Alex in on what might have been behind these two crimes, Alex begins his own investigation, calling on the many old friends and acquaintances who work at the Vatican as Swiss Guards, drivers and clerics. But the real solution may be the subject of Nogara’s exhibit and, for that, Alex’s expertise in the history of the Gospels is critical.

Pope John Paul returns religious relics stolen in the Crusades to
Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew
You wouldn’t think that a mystery that revolves around the intricacies of Gospel history and critical interpretation could make for a decent thriller plot, but it’s surprisingly compelling stuff. Caldwell has that gift of taking a subject you might not have any interest in and making it fascinating. It doesn’t hurt that he adds in lashings of intrigue, with different groups within the Vatican favoring or implacably opposing any reconciliation with the Greek Orthodox Church––a reconciliation that would have to overcome centuries of hatred and mistrust, due in large part to the violence and plundering visited by Catholic Crusaders on the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople.

If you’re looking for an action-heavy thriller, this isn’t it. The plot plays out deliberately and works more cerebrally than physically. This isn’t just a thriller, though. Unlike so many thrillers, the focus is at least as much on the characters, and on history and ideas. And, with hardly a whiff of romance, this is a novel that is overwhelmingly about love. Love of family, of God, of friends. The kind of love that changes lives and leads to bonds that can’t be broken and to sacrifice.

credit: Interview magazine
The novel is a bit of a slow starter, but as I read on it became completely engrossing. I think it’s important to say you don’t have to be a believer to find the story and its characters compelling. I’ve heard some people mention The DaVinci Code in connection with this book, but this is nothing like The DaVinci Code––and that’s a good thing, in my opinion.

A note about the audiobook: The narrator is Jack Davenport. If you watched the NBC series Smash, he played the libidinous English director. He has a voice like Irish Coffee and, to be honest, he could read me an insurance contract and I’d keep listening.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review of Sascha Arango's The Truth and Other Lies

The Truth and Other Lies, by Sascha Arango (Atria Books, June 23, 2015)

Henry Hayden is one of those very successful writers who pumps out one best-selling thriller after another. His success saved the publishing house that discovered his first manuscript, he's charming to the fans who seek him out in the coastal village where he lives with his quiet wife, Martha, and he is modest and generous. Now, which of these things isn't true? As we find out right off the bat, it isn't Henry who is the writer, but Martha––though not a soul besides the couple knows that.

When Betty, Henry's editor and mistress tells him she's pregnant, Henry's carefully-arranged life threatens to unravel. Henry's quick fix goes awry and he has to engage in more and more complex schemes to avoid exposure of his current misdeeds––and the revelation of his past by an old acquaintance who promises to turn into a nemesis.

You might have figured out by now that Henry is a sociopath and this is one of those books (like Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels, for example) that invites us to identify with the amoral lead character. It was hard to do that at first; Henry is just too cold. But as we learn more about Henry, a bit of a thaw comes. Even if it's only admiration of Henry's skill at constructing complex schemes to wriggle out of trouble.

illustration from The New York Times
This short novel moves along quickly and I kept turning the pages as fast as I could to find out what happens to Henry––and to the manuscript Martha has been working on when the novel opens. I enjoyed the plotting, and the translation from the original German is well done.

There isn't much sense of place; in fact, I couldn't tell you where this is supposed to be set, other than that it's a coastal town and it's somewhere in Europe. I would also say that it's not nearly as skilled in roping the reader into "sympathy for the devil" as Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling (one of my favorite reads of last year), but it's a quick and entertaining read.

Note: I received a free advance review copy of the book. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Review of Mick Herron's Nobody Walks

Nobody Walks, by Mick Herron (Soho Crime, February 17, 2015)

After a long career as an ops agent for MI-5, Tom Bettany had had enough. He'd gone undercover for years to bust the McGarry crime organization, and that experience was a stain on the soul. When his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he quit to be with her and their son, Liam. After Hannah died, the estrangement from Liam that had begun during his undercover years turned to a complete split.

Bettany became a bit of a drifter, leaving England for France and taking strenuous physical jobs, like his latest one in a meat packing plant. When he gets a call saying that Liam died from a fall from his apartment balcony, where he had been smoking a powerful new strain of marijuana called muskrat, Bettany comes home. Not just to go to the funeral, but to find out exactly what happened.

It doesn't take much of his old intelligence skills for Bettany to figure out that Liam's death was no accident. Now he needs to find out who is responsible and make them pay. With no official sanction and a fierce thirst for revenge, though, Bettany's methods of investigation lack a certain subtlety. In short order, he has problems with a whole raft of dangerous characters, including the muskrat distribution gang's kingpin, McGarry gang members, and the muscle for Liam's boss, who is a multi-millionaire video game creator. And when Bettany gets a call from MI-5, that's not good news, either.

I got to know Herron's writing in the last couple of years, when I read his Slow Horses and Dead Lions. The books are about a group of MI-5 agents who have been exiled from Regent's Park, where the real intelligence action is, to Slough House because of various screwups and misdeeds. These castoff agents are expected to resign at the sheer humiliation, but they're determined to hang on, distinguish themselves somehow and scrape their way back across the Thames.

The Slough House series books are terrific thrillers, stylishly written and with plenty of cynical humor. One running schtick is how the Slough House boss, the slovenly and casually offensive Jackson Lamb, is able to puncture the two top iron ladies at Regent's Park, Ingrid Tearney and Diana Tavener.

Mick Herron
You definitely don't have to read the Slough House books to enjoy Nobody Walks. It stands on its own and has a different style. There is not much humor to be had in Tom Bettany's story. This is a grim and gritty revenge thriller. You can't call Bettany likable, but he's a riveting character and the story is both action-packed and thought-provoking, with plenty of twists and turns. If this book were made into a movie––which would be a great idea––I could see Daniel Craig or Liam Neeson playing Bettany.

If you have read the Slough House books, I think you'll get a kick out of seeing the iron ladies, and you may wonder, as I do, whether Nobody Walks is the end of the Bettany story or if there will be a sequel. And if there is a sequel, might the Slough House gang come along for the ride?

Notes: I was given a free advance review copy of the book. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.