Friday, January 07, 2005

Lethem: Gun, With Occasional Music—Homage with Kangaroos

There was nothing to it. The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.
  —Raymond Chandler

In Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music, Conrad Metcalf lives in a new age San Francisco where a kangaroo in a dinner jacket is as likely to show up as the Thought Police. For a private eye with an disinclination to back away from the tough questions, either one is an unwelcome visitor. But Metcalf also has to deal with a revolt among the babyheads, and there's a murder that persists in coming to Metcalf's attention despite his every attempt to avoid being involved.
...I was beginning to feel the proverbial breath on my neck, but I tried not to let it spook me into a wrong move. A tail is like a pimple. It comes to a head on its own time. You can rush it, but it usually makes a mess if you do.

This is a world where, if you don't toe the line, you run out of karma. Metcalf is a man whose business regularly takes him over that line. As we move deeper into the shadows of Metcalf's San Francisco, we realize that his karma will not last to the end of the book. What happens when his karma drops to zero? The answer is part of the mystery he's trying to solve.
   "Let's go someplace," I said. "Your place."
   "My place isn't good," she said. "Let's go to yours."
   I looked at her funny. "Isn't Kornfield supposed to have someone watching it?"
   "Yes," she said. "Me."

Lethem has caught the brutal, objective, descriptive style of Chandler perfectly, and written a good mystery with noir flavor and science fiction spice. It succeeds both as mystery and homage. I recommend it.

Gun, With Occasional Music won the Lotus Award for Best First Novel in 1995.


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