Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: The Future of Law Enforcement: problems faced by tomorrow’s investigators.
In most mysteries, the setting of the crime tends to be a minor detail compared to the how, the who and the why. However, changing the crime’s where and when can dramatically affect the motive and consequences, as well as the methods used by law enforcement to find the guilty. With that in mind, here are three books where a novel setting dictates the investigation.
So if you like:
- Hard science fiction
- Murder mysteries
- The odd pop culture reference in your fiction
You might like
Lock In, by John Scalzi
..and the novelty is: people remotely driving robot bodies, so catching the murderer red handed won’t mean much when they can just log off.
Haden’s Syndrome leaves its victims paralyzed but able to think and operate robot bodies. On his first day on the job, FBI agent and Haden’s sufferer Chris Shane is assigned to investigate an unusual murder that may have bigger implications for everyone with the illness.
“She’s one what?”
“An Integrator,” Davidson said. “Or was, anyway, before she joined the Bureau.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said. I looked over to where she was sitting down and getting comfortable.
“It’s why she’s got this beat,” Davidson said. “She gets you guys in a way the rest of us don’t. No offense, but it’s hard for the rest of us to wrap our brains around what’s going on with you.”
“I understand that,” I said.
“Yeah,” Davidson said. He was quiet for a second, and I waited for what I knew was coming next: the Personal Connection to Haden’s. I guessed an uncle or a cousin.
“I had a cousin who got Haden’s,” Davidson said, and internally I checked off the victory. “This was back with the first wave, when no one had any idea what the fuck was going on. Before they called it Haden’s. She got the flu, and then seemed to get better, and then—” He shrugged.
“Lock in,” I said.
“Right,” Davidson said. “I remember going to the hospital to see her, and they had a whole wing of locked-in patients. Just lying there, doing nothing but breathing. Dozens of them. And a couple of days before, all of them were walking around, living a normal life.”
The idea of a protagonist who can hop in and out of mechanical bodies all over the place is an interesting one, and Scalzi does a solid bit of world building here. He’s conjured a believable society with equally believable problems, and consequently, equally interesting crimes. As agent Shane gets closer to the truth of what really happens, the story follows the rules of all good mysteries, by putting all the pieces on the table so that when the resolution does come it makes total sense to the reader.
Lock In is a well thought out mystery with good pacing, solid writing and a really interesting concept.
So if you like
- Concord, NH
- Pre-apocalypse fiction
- A twist on the police procedural
You might like
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
…and the novelty is: With the world ending in less than a year, there are no long term consequences, and any jail time becomes a life sentence.
Detective Palace is pretty sure an apparent suicide was actually a murder, but solving it is even more difficult when nobody cares because the world is going to end in less than a year anyway.
I’m tapping a finger on my chin. Zell was short, five foot six maybe; stubby, thick around the middle. Holy moly, I’m still thinking, because something is off about this body, this corpse, this particular presumptive suicide, and I’m trying to figure out what it is.
“No phone,” I murmur.
“His wallet is here, and his keys, but there’s no cell phone.”
Dotseth shrugs. “Betcha he junked it. Beth just junked hers. Service is starting to get so dicey, she figured she might as well get rid of the darn thing now.”
I nod, murmur “sure, sure,” still staring at Zell.
“Also, no note.”
“There’s no suicide note.”
“Oh, yeah?” he says, shrugs again. “Probably a friend will find it. Boss, maybe.” He smiles, drains the coffee. “They all leave notes, these folks. Although, you have to say, explanation not really necessary at this point, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, running a hand over my mustache. “Yes, indeed.”
I only have two complaints about this excellent book:
1 – Winters name drops locations like he’s on the Concord bureau of tourism, which can be cool if you’ve been there, but I don’t know that’ll play well to an out of state audience.
2 – There’s a throwaway line about all of pre-apocalypse Dunkin’ Donuts locations being out of business, which, for New Englanders, would be the actual apocalypse, incoming dinosaur killing asteroids be dammed.
That said, this was a really interesting read. The idea of trying to maintain law and order in a world where people are killing themselves anyway, and long term consequences don’t apply any more introduces an interesting twist on the detective story, since traditional motives don’t apply. Winters takes this idea, and plays it out in a number of interesting ways, which may be why the book is grouped in with Science Fiction, although there aren’t really any futuristic elements to it.
While The Last Policeman is the first book in a trilogy, I felt it had a satisfying ending. Some lose threads are left to be tied up later, but it’s not a multiple book commitment.
So if you like
- Alternate realities
- Minority Report’s department of Pre-Crime
- Strong female protagonists
- The messed up twists of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter
You might like
The Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch
…and the novelty is: Skip the initial investigation and go to the future to see what you found in the past to track down leads in the present.
An impending catastrophe that spans all possible futures is getting closer to the present, which creates a ticking clock for an NCIS investigation into a murder that has to be solved fast, which justifies sending a detective into a possible future to find out what they would have learned.
“But this is just a version of the future,” she said, imagining she could feel the QTNs like parasites in her blood. “This is just one of infinite possibilities. So there are other possibilities, other futures. The Terminus doesn’t have to happen.”
“The Terminus is a shadow that falls across the future of our species,” said her instructor. “Every timeline we’ve visited ends in the Terminus. And it’s moving closer. We first dated the event to 2666—but the next travelers to witness the Terminus found that it had moved closer, to 2456. And the Terminus has moved closer still, to 2121. You see, the Terminus is like the blade of a guillotine slicing toward us. Our Navy and its fleet have been tasked to find a way out from that shadow, and our vocation is to support the Navy. Everything I’ll teach you, everything you’ll see, is to help our species avoid the Terminus. We have to find our way out from the shadow.”
“What else will I see?”
“The end of everything.”
There is no easy summary for this book as there are a number of disparate elements Sweterlitsch pulls together. The tone and subject matter reminded me a lot of Blake Crouch’s excellent Dark Matter, but there’s also the mix of a government investigation into a murder, space travel, possible futures, and versions of those characters in the possible futures that are all pulled together to make a truly unique and compelling story set against the ticking clock of an apocalypse that seems to get closer every time they look.
Admittedly, there’s a lot going on here, and at points it would be helpful to have a diagram to keep track of the characters in their various potential futures, but this was a really compelling read, with some really weird ideas that were well explored, and while the ending didn’t blow me away, it did make sense, and was probably the only way things could have resolved.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts on your social media platform of choice, and stay tuned for my next column, which will probably have something to do with robots.