Ever since Philip Marlow and Sam Spade roamed the back allies and dimly lit bars of American crime fiction readers have revelled in the adventures of anti-hero private detectives. With more in common with the crooks they hunt than those on the supposed right side of the law they not only moved in the shadow world of criminal behaviour but the darker recesses of the human spirit as well. Hardened by crime, corruption and hard living they offered readers a bitter and jaded view of the world. A view which had more to do with reality than what was usually on offer in the popular fiction of the day.
However, as the years have passed since they were first published the world has changed significantly, and we’re all too aware of the mean streets around us. We don’t need hard boiled detectives to expose the rot beneath the pretty veneer of civilization when we can read about it in the headlines of our daily newspaper. So as the 20th century started winding down parodies of the tough private dick started to show up in popular culture. While some of these efforts weren’t bad, the most common result of reading or watching something featuring one of these take offs was you’d end up missing the originals. For instead of having fun with the genre, most of those being made were making fun of it.
So I have to admit to having some hesitations when I began reading Robert J Sawyer’s new book Red Planet Blues, published by Penguin Canada. Instead of the mean streets of some major city in North America, Sawyer’s investigator, Alex Lomax, has set up shop in the rough and tumble city of New Klondike on the planet Mars. Like its namesake on Earth it was once a boom town populated by a host of prospectors hoping to strike it big. However, instead of gold or diamonds, on Mars they were after fossils. Artefacts of the ancient life on the Red Planet which were valuable collector items back on earth.
As we learn from Lomax the fossil boom began forty years before the events in our story take place. Two explorers, Simon Weingarten and Denny O’Reilly, discovered the first evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet. By the time we come in the boom has long since busted, and New Klondike is a city fallen on hard times. There are still a few prospectors chasing the dream of finding “the big one” which will make their fortunes, but mainly it’s a town filled with those who can’t go back to earth for one reason or another. They may not be able to afford the passage; they may have been on Mars too long and their bodies won’t be able to readjust to Earth’s gravity; or they may just like being outside the reach of Earth’s jurisdiction. Whatever the reason most of them are just trying to get by, including P.I. Lomax.
Those wealthy enough can make the stay somewhat more pleasurable by transferring their brains into a new, nearly indestructible, body. Not only do Transfers gain a measure of immortality, they also gain a body which can survive the Martian climate. Everybody else has to stay within the confines of the dome surrounding New Klondike and make monthly payments to keep yourself supplied with life support. If you do have to take a stroll on the planet’s surface, you need to doll up in a hermetically sealed suit complete with its own life support system and internal plumbing. Those choosing to have the transfer done usually also go for a new improved version of themselves. While most of these upgrades are of the cosmetic variety, the new bodies are also far stronger and faster than their biological equivalents. The invulnerability and the extra strength come in handy for any number of things, including murder, theft and other nefarious activities.
Which, for those still hoping to find the mother lode of fossils, is extremely helpful. The investigation Lomax stumbles into via what at first appears to be a simple missing persons case ends up involving an almost mythical rumoured motherlode, transfers and a mystery dating back to the founding of the city. The two who first discovered fossils had died under mysterious circumstances and the knowledge of the location of their biggest fossil field died with them. The problem with fossil prospecting is there are no clues on the surface of the planet telling you what’s buried beneath your feet. Unless you know where the fossils are, you could search for decades and not find anything.
With almost no fossils coming on the market demand for them, and the price people are willing to pay, has gone through the roof. So even a rumour somebody has a line on Weingarten’s and O’Reilly’s famous lost field causes shockwaves of greed to spread through the community. Lomax soon finds his simple missing persons case turning into a murder investigation stretching back four decades. While some of the leads might be cold, it doesn’t stop things from heating up or the bodies, both biological and transfers, piling up in the present.
Sawyer has done a great job in not only lovingly recreating the tough talking detective type made famous by Raymond Chandler, but in putting him in a setting where his talents can shine. There’s nothing fancy or exotic about New Klondike, just like there’s nothing glamourous about Lomax or any of the people he associates with. Like the plots in those great old movies with Bogart as the tough talking dick, there’s some beautiful women along for the ride to provide distraction, including one or two femme fatales just to make things interesting for our stalwart hero.
Yet even more interesting is how Sawyer has made his lead a little more complex then his predecessors, and we begin to suspect his hard boiled gum shoe shtick is a persona he puts on for the job. Lomax, who also narrates the adventure, does his best to convince us of his mercenary nature, at one point wondering if he can legitimately bill his client for time spent sleeping with a witness. However, for someone so interested in the almighty dollar he sure spends a lot of time trying to solve this mystery without a client to foot the bill.
The more we find out about Lomax the more we discover he has very set opinions on right and wrong and does his best to see people live up to them. Sure, he’s got to pay the rent, and for the right to breath oxygen under the dome, but once he gets the bit in his teeth he’s not about to let anybody get away with murder. While we may initially like hanging out with him because of his world weary and slightly cynical take on his fellow beings, we actually end up liking him for what lies beneath the surface.
In Red Planet Blues Sawyer has found a highly original and fun way to pay homage to the great hard boiled detectives of the past. Mars, like the sun kissed streets of Los Angeles Philip Marlow once patrolled, may sound like it’s an exotic location, but underneath the glamour of being on another planet there’s just as many dark and dangerous secrets as anywhere else. So it’s the perfect setting for a private eye willing to skirt around the edges of the law. You’ll have a lot of fun wandering the mean streets of New Klondike and over the surface of the Red Planet with P.I. Lomax, and he might even give you a few things to think about.