Thursday, January 24, 2008

Private Eyes, Dames, and... Robots?

I've always enjoyed a good classic PI story (Dashiell Hammett and Philip Marlowe come to mind) and I was thrilled when I read the following two books from my Winter lists that take the essence of this genre and reinvent it in two very different ways.

The first is B.C. native Linda L. Richards' Death Was the Other Woman. Dexter J. Theroux is a hard-drinking P.I. in Depression-era Los Angeles, with a lot of personal demons and not a lot of clients. Kitty Pangborn is his secretary: born to a wealthy family that lost it all in the stock market crash of 1929, she now needs Dex’s pay check in order to survive. So when her boss hits the bottle a little too hard and isn’t in any shape to drive to tail their (only) client’s lover, she acts as chauffeur to get the job done. But when the lover is murdered on their watch and his corpse later disappears, what at first looked to be a simple job is just the beginning of a complex web of betrayals, schemes, and double-crosses that keep you guessing until the end. You've got all of the familiar conventions of the genre (femme fatales, gangsters, speakeasies etc.) but the story is made fresh and unique by telling it from Kitty's perspective. Kitty not only helps Dex with his investigations but also does some snooping on her own, and I like that she's not the type of heroine who clumsily stumbles upon the killer. She's smart, intuitive and is more practical than romantic. Each character in the book, from Kitty to Dex, to the mysterious Mustard and glamorous Brucie are complex and interesting, and I missed them all when I finished the book. The descriptions of 1930’s L.A. are so evocative, you’ll feel as though you are right there with the characters. I hope the author has a sequel in the works!

Completely different, but no less fun to read is A. Lee Martinez's The Automatic Detective. Mack Megatron is a bot (automated citizen) living in the futuristic, heavily polluted Empire City. He was originally built for world domination, but when he spontaneously developed self awareness he decided he'd rather be a productive member of society. Turning in his evil creator to the authorities, he has applied for citizenship and is on probation until the city officials are convinced he won't regress and level the city. When the story begins, Mac is trying to make ends meet by driving a cab: a bot needs a LOT of electricity to recharge, after all, and electricity doesn't come cheap. He also needs to keep out of trouble as officials are just looking for an excuse to send him to the scrap heap. He has befriended Julie in the apartment next door who fixes his uniform tie each morning, as his hands are not really designed for such delicate work. But this morning, she's not her usual friendly self when he knocks on her door and when she and her family later disappear without a trace, he deduces that something very bad has happened. Deciding their friendship to be worth risking his chance for citizenship, he borrows a trenchcoat and fedora from his friend Jung (a Jane-Austen-loving, sentient gorilla), who also is the only person Mack knows with clothes that might fit him, and sets off to find Julie and her family. The search takes Mack all over Empire city from its dive bars and back alleys to the fanciest skyscraper and government offices. Along the way, he meets a brainy biological dame who is very easy on the optical sensors, a six-armed mutant lowlife, a little green mob boss, a few aliens, almost gets blown up a few times, and uncovers a secret conspiracy at the heart of the city. Fans of hard-boiled PI mysteries or science fiction readers will both get a kick out of this story. It is very witty, very smart, and is a highly entertaining way to spend a weekend afternoon.


Maylin said...

I love the retro covers on these! They look like really fun reads.

Linda L. Richards said...

"I missed them all when I finished the book."

Can an author hear sweeter words? I don't think so. Thank you.

And, yes: a sequel is in the pipes. St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne will publish it in 2009.