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I stared at the leaflet in my hands. CAN A MACHINE SAVE YOUR SOUL? it demanded of me rhetorically. The word ‘machine’ had been printed in script designed to resemble an archaic computer display. ‘Soul’ was in flowing stereographic letters that danced all over the page. I turned over for the answer.

NO!!!!!

Folks before I get started, several folks have let me know there was a problem with yesterday’s post. Apparently the image used at the top of the article did not display properly. Please refresh the page with ‘https:’, to view the post correctly. I’ll have to investigate why the site is not displaying images properly.

Today’s book felt quite familiar for the first half. I realized it was because Richard Morgan‘s brand of intelligent cyberpunk/dystopic futurism reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Even the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is reminiscent of that other book’s protagonist, um, Hiro Protagonist (yes that is his name. Like Joyce’s Stephen Hero, but with ninja hacking skills).

Not only though does Kovacs have kick-ass fighting skills and the conditioning of a cold-blooded military assassin – he is functionally immortal. Which is a good thing too as in the opening pages of Altered Carbon he and partner Sarah are shot to death by a hit-squad.

Reborn in a new body, on an alien planet, Kovacs finds himself acclimatising rapidly. He is an Envoy, a specially engineered soldier, hardwired to be the most efficient killing machine possible. He can consciously control his emotions, how he feels pain, as well as an impressive rate of data retention. In effect he is an unstoppable killer with eidetic memory. Envoys were created to be expendable soldiers who learned from their experiences and could cope psychologically with repeatedly returning to life. Kovacs is relieved to find his new body shares many of the capabilities of his last form on the planet known as Harlan’s World.

Now though, he finds himself on Earth, that moribund birthplace of the expansionist human race. An incredibly wealthy ‘Meth’, which is short for Methuselah and denotes the social standing of a business aristocracy that can afford to have stored clones increasing their lifespan into hundreds of years, has hired Kovacs to solve a murder. His murder in fact, although the police are convinced that it is suicide. Kovacs quickly understands that he is not an employee, or a private contractor in this case. The ‘client’, Laurens Bancroft, effectively owns him. If Kovacs cannot unravel the mystery, the callous Meth can just fling his ‘stack’, the device that stores his personality, right back into storage.

Together with the help of wary cop Kristin Ortega and a sophisticated hotel A.I. named Hendrix who is addicted to guests, Kovacs is on the case. But he is a rogue factor that certain elements would prefer not to get too close to the reasons behind Bancroft’s ‘death’. His Envoy analytical prowess and fighting skills are the only things that give him an edge against assassins with multiple bodies, a duplicitous widow/wife and a criminal mastermind from his past.

Morgan fashions a narrative that is one part Neal Stephenson, one part Charles Stross and one part Raymond Chandler. In effect this is a detective mystery, complete with that favourite trope of mine – the investigator with a much damaged body, except that it is set a far flung future. There is even the requisite femme fatale, a love triangle, chase sequences through derelict streets – this book has it all.

Thankfully, for all its familiarity, Altered Carbon represents not only a well-told story, but an excellent debut from Morgan, who has since spun the guilt-wracked Kovacs into a series of novels. The vectoring of personalities courtesy of clones and a process known as ‘sleeving’, (as in to wear a sleeve) where the original persona of a body is replaced with another, is well sketched. The plot is focused mainly on the exploitation of the poor, with Kovacs blundering through brothels and illegal surgeries, where the bodies and minds of the helpless are stripped apart. The material is bleak, but leaved with Kovacs’ own gallows humour. There is even a fantastic scene with a character split into two bodies debates the progress of the story so far – although to reveal more would spoil the fun.

Thrilling science fiction with a gritty aftertaste.

He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”

I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.

Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.

This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence.  The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.

One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.

Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?

Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.

I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.

Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.

When I looked I saw a gray mess hung up in brambles. The moonlight was shining across the water and falling on a face, or what had been a face, but was more like a jack-o’-lantern now, swollen and round with dark sockets for eyes. There was a wad of hair on its head, like a chunk of dark lamb’s wool, and the body was swollen and twisted and without clothes. A woman.

Reading this book was interesting, as it is an extended version of a previously published short story by Joe R. Lansdale titled Mad Dog Summer.  As such this is a murder mystery for which I already know the outcome. Of course this is Lansdale, so I simply could not keep away.

Our story begins with Harry Crane, now an old man in a retirement home, reminiscing about his childhood in East Texas back in 1933. Jacob his father was the local barber and constable for the area. His mother May Lynn was a strikingly beautiful woman who chose to marry a man whose views against the segregation of blacks and whites guaranteed a difficult life for her. Then one evening Harry and his sister Tom discover a body tied to a tree with barbed wire.

Lansdale excels at this exposure of childhood innocence to the violence of the adult world. Harry cannot understand why only his father cares about the dead woman. Slowly he learns that for the worthies of the town, such as Old Man Nation, the only good black is a dead black. Racism infects every level of the community and Harry’s father can barely hold back the tide. Soon the local Ku Klux Klan are agitating for a lynching and Doc Stephenson refuses to even help with an autopsy.

While the search for the killer continues, Harry dreams at night of the terrifying figure known as the Goat Man. He thinks he saw the half-goat creature in the forest that evening after he found the body, standing in the middle of the path behind him staring at the Crane children. Harry is convinced that the mythical Goat Man is the killer, but no one believes that it even exists.

Revisiting this story Lansdale introduces new characters and broadens the characters of the Crane parents. He excels at describing the wounded nobility of figures such as Constable Crane, trying to do the right thing while fighting against the tide of intolerance that persists in his community. An added dimension is given to his relationship with his wife with the introduction of Red, a former rival for her attentions. Lansdale also includes the character of Harry’s grandmother, who takes an interest in the murder case.

New scenes such as the autopsy of Jelda May Sykes help to broaden the themes of the novel, with Jacob being forced to travel to a neighbouring town to consult with a black doctor as Doc Stephenson refuses to treat the body for fear of upsetting the local whites. It is a credit to Lansdale’s abilities as a writer that even during a sequence describing the carving up of a corpse he manages to rise a chuckle, when Doc Tinn explains to the astonished Jacob the properties of the clitoris. It is this reliance on gallows humour that I appreciate most in Lansdale’s writing, combined with a matter-of-fact view on morality.

Knowing the identity of the murderer allowed me to concentrate on the language and imagery of the novel. Lansdale is a master of quick dialogue and captures the innocent perspective of a child perfectly. Recommended for fans of a decent murder mystery.

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