Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Automatic Detective

A. Lee Martinez
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1834-3

Imagine you were a seven-hundred pound engine of destruction, built to enforce your master’s diabolical will and bring the world to its knees. If you developed a conscience, some essential spark of free will which led you to break free of evil henchrobot-hood, what would you do with it?

Mack Megaton drives a taxi. At least to start with, that is; destiny seems to have other plans, and events seem to be conspiring to fit him for an existential niche roughly the shape of Sam Spade. Before too long he’s snappily dressed in trenchcoat and fedora, searching for the lowlife who abducted his neighbours, and getting caught up in circumstances far above his pay grade. From the dazzling heights of Proton Towers to the radioactive depths of Venom Park, he’ll leave no cliché soft-boiled…

Everything about ‘The Automatic Detective’ is as familiar as well-worn shoes, from the tropes of Chandler-esque PI fiction to the setting itself. Mack lives in one of those Cities of the Future! (exclamation mark compulsory) we’ve seen on the covers of pulp SF magazines since the thirties, where flying cars zip through the street-space and robots mix with mutants, psychics and talking gorillas. Mad science isn’t just a hobby in Empire City, it’s a way of life. The Learned Council runs the place in their own special way, apparently by inventing every last lunatic technology that sparks their imagination and then dumping it on the streets when the next mad concept leaps to mind. As Mack himself says, when faced with one of their experimental vehicles blocking traffic:
‘Nothing got perfected in Empire before it was replaced by something better. The Big Brains loved science for science’s sake.’ (p.25)

Unfortunately, considering ‘The Automatic Detective’s aspirations to noir, A. Lee Martinez must have only got halfway through The Big Sleep, and skim-read over the best bits. This isn’t hardboiled so much as half-baked, aping the forms Chandler and Hammett made famous but failing to really understand what makes good noir tick. It’s not enough just to dress your protagonist up in pinstripes and hat; he has to walk the walk and talk the talk, too. Mack Megaton doesn’t have much of a talent for snappy dialogue, nor much of a taste for the bottle or a sleazy dame. Neither are much use to him, after all.

The lack of a femme fatale in particular damages ‘The Automatic Detective’s noir credentials; while the novel does have one strong female role, it’s not giving anything away to point out the tragic waste of a good opportunity in Lucia Napier. But much like Mack, she only looks the part. Instead she seems to fulfil that irritating narrative function labelled ‘deus ex machina’, i.e. to bail the protagonist out of trouble or provide whatever techno-whatsit he needs to overcome the problem of the moment.

But even more fatal a flaw is Mack’s sheer indestructibility, swiftly killing any sense of suspense before it can get up to speed. For all he might play the hard man, the appeal of any good hardboiled hero is in his fragility – both physical and emotional. Mack takes a knock or two, but by the climax of the novel he’s carving a swathe through the villains with an easy nonchalance that even an eighties action hero would envy.

As for the emotional side, Martinez deserves a little more credit here. Mack’s first-person narrative is detached, machine-like, with only little sparks of warmth – it’s an effective portrayal of how a robot on the cusp of true sapience might view his world, but it leaves the reader standing on the outside looking in. And the deeply formal language in which Mack describes his encounters with various science thugs can make even the most desperate situation seem tame, even ludicrous:
‘No matter how the variables shifted, my difference engine put the odds of escape at 0 percent in the current situation.’ (p.194)

For all that it damages ‘The Automatic Detective’ as a novel, the style of Mack’s narration does make for an interesting character study; those flashes of warmth, of humanity amidst the unfeeling drone, gives Mack a personality not unlike that of a child, learning to understand the world and how to respond to its complexities. The occasional chilling reversion to ‘engine of destruction’ amorality, meanwhile, does much to paint a picture of a character struggling to overcome the worst demons of his own nature:
‘Napier was right. I didn’t have mercy. Not that I wanted to hurt Ringo. His bones snapped too easily to give me much satisfaction.’ (p.119)
This nature/nature war going on inside its protagonist provides the novel with an interest the narrative itself seems to lack, and shows a level of thoughtfulness usually lacking in pulp.

While ‘The Automatic Detective’ isn’t much of a noir detective story, it might have been forgiven had Martinez dazzled his reader with science! (there’s that exclamation mark again) and wonder. But Empire City has none of the presence and evocative sense of place a novel like this needs; it’s a crayon sketch of a city, superficially effective until you get up close. Then you start to see the white bits in between the hypercolour whizz, and the bits where they’ve scrawled over the line. There’s no sense of how it all fits together, how it functions. Like the endlessly repeating backdrop in a scrolling cartoon chase sequence, Empire City doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Terry Pratchett said that an author ‘had to start out by wondering how the fresh water got in and the sewage got out’ (The Discworld Companion, p.475), and it’s advice A. Lee Martinez might want to take under advisement.

‘The Automatic Detective’ seems to be aiming to blend pulp detective and pulp sci-fi, but ends up doing a fairly half-arsed job of both. It’s a pleasant read, diverting enough and undemanding despite some unexpected depth to its protagonist. But if Mack Megaton’s still looming large in the back alleys of your brain a week after you’re done reading, I’ll eat my fedora.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com