Robert J. Sawyer isn’t particularly interested in repeating himself. With more than twenty novels to his credit, he’s done alien societies on distant planets; aliens making a Contact-style radio-connection; aliens visiting Earth in the flesh. He’s done time travel into the distant past; speculations on both the near and more distant future; and an alternate present in a parallel universe.
Recently, Sawyer’s quest for variety has brought him to other genres. Last year’s Triggers was a techno-thriller that mixed bits of Dan Brown and Robert Ludlum with his own trademark style. Now, with his Martian murder mystery Red Planet Blues, the science fiction veteran has gone hard-boiled.
The setting is New Klondike, Mars’s only city, a small town really, confined to a pressurized dome. The place is filled with prospectors and failed prospectors, but unlike the Klondike we know, they aren’t looking for gold, but the highly prized fossilized remains of Mars’s long-extinct fauna.
Sawyer’s rhizomorphs and pentapods are evocative, but the story isn’t very concerned with the evolutionary history of these ancient beasts, nor their premature end. What matters is that anyone can theoretically go to Mars and strike it rich with the right fossil bed, but most won’t be so lucky. The trappings of polite society — law and order, respect for human life and dignity — are at a premium. This is a town of quashed dreams and desperate, ruthless greed.
A fine place for murder.
This book actually grew out of a novella-length story (“Identity Theft”) that comprises the first hundred pages or so of a surprisingly hefty novel. That story introduced us to private investigator Alexander Lomax, and a mystery involving a man who goes missing after uploading his mind into an artificial body.
The original story already has a beginning, middle, and end, with the requisite build-up, climax, and post-climactic tying-off of plot threads. Taking that self-contained story and then adding another three-hundred-plus pages to the end of it (bridged with the old “two months later” device) makes for some awkward pacing, to say the least.
Sawyer made an effort to expand upon, rather than merely add on to, the core story in the novella. The rediscovery of a long-lost Martian fossil mother-lode was merely the MacGuffin of that mystery, but takes a far more central role in the novel. The reader also learns more about Mars’s and New Klondike’s relatively brief history, and even uncovers some historical curiosities of the Great Martian Fossil Rush’s early days. Characters from the novella return in more significant roles, and new ones also make an appearance. Sawyer has suggested he is probably done with writing novel series, so it’s nice to get a little more information about this world he’s created than what made it into that much shorter piece.
But you can see the seams. In proper noir tradition, the original story had dead-end leads and red herrings, but now every peripheral, throwaway character comes back later in the novel as part of some mystery or conspiracy. Oh, there are conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies. Plot twists to the power of n. But this ret-conning feels contrived, like Sawyer is telling us, “See, there was a plan for them all along.” And it’s contrary to the spirit of this type of story, which is not actually supposed to wrap up in such a neat little package.
Red Planet Blues tastes very much of Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s one novel-length adventure, particularly in the narrative voice of its protagonist. I’m more of a Phillip Marlowe man myself. Raymond Chandler’s hero may be Spade’s direct literary descendant, but the apple sometimes falls a ways from the tree, and I’d take Marlowe’s rough-edged honesty over the moral ambiguity of his progenitor any day.
Likewise over Sawyer’s gumshoe. I had real trouble getting a bead on Mr. Lomax. Despite the first-person narrative, the motivation of this novel’s protagonist is frequently unclear, sometimes frustratingly so. His decisions to work with or against the police, to trust or betray a partner, to take or spare a life, seem sometimes more related to the exigencies of the plot than any kind of consistent, relatable personality.
It’s not difficult to breeze through this book in a weekend. Sawyer’s prose here is of his usual pick-up-and-go readability, and his hard-boiled voice is more than passable. But as a mystery novel it’s flawed. And the more you read and enjoy that genre, the harder it will be to enjoy this book.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.