BOOK REVIEW: Made To Kill

Made To Kill by Adam Christopher, Titan Books (ISBN 9781783296866)

I’ve been aware of Adam Christopher’s work since Empire State stirred up a buzz, and my brief interview with him on Scrolls left me resolved to dig deeper, but I didn’t get around to reading any of his novels until Made To Kill arrived. I’ve drawn back from reviewing books of late because the volumes that pour in from the publishers far exceed the speed at which I can read them but do you know what? – I stuck up my hand for a review copy the moment I saw the cover for this baby. Everything about it called out to me. The robot detective dressed like Bogie, the silhouetted mystery woman, the colours, Hell, even the damned fonts had me jigging for joy. In his afterword, Adam describes Made To Kill as his attempt at a Raymond Chandler science fiction epic. Talk about shooting for the stars! I’m more of a Hammett man myself, but Chandler is right up there in the constellation of 20th century greats. His terse style and wildly inventive turns of phrase make for swift consumption and leave a fizzing sourpop after-taste. The idea of bringing that style into 60’s Hollywood, wrapped up in silver-age SF trappings, was too good to pass up. How did it read? Join me after the jump to find out.

So, here’s the beef: Ray Electromatic is the world’s last robot. He’s also a private detective. Robots seemed like a good idea back in the 50’s but people got kinda weirded out by them, so they’ve been phased out bit by bit. Maybe it’s luck he survived, maybe it’s fate, but Ray has something the others didn’t have: a secretary/boss/supercomputer called Ada who helps him keep his head down and his bank balance up. Dick work is okay but it pays pretty poorly. Snuff jobs, though – now we’re talking. They’ve got a sweet number going for a while, with plenty of Government work on the side, but when a movie star comes waltzing in with a simple job it seems kind of rude to turn her away. Plus, she seems to know more than she should about their trade, which is a little disturbing. Ray’s a little rusty on the detective stuff and he doesn’t exactly blend it, but the case needs both of his particular skill-sets (and the bag of gold ingots the dame totes around is pretty enticing too.) Before long Ray finds himself knee-deep in murder, mind-control and mayhem. It’s a good job he’s fully charged up.

Made To Kill is a breeze of a book: fast-paced, twisty and whimsical. First person narrative is a staple of pulp-noirs but it often leaves one wondering just who the character is talking to (and why they never respond.) Well, it works neatly here because it effectively forms the archive of Ray’s memory tapes. Any thought, feeling, observation and conversation could come in handy for the future, so it makes sense to record them all. The plot is suitably nuts: full of double-crosses, skullduggery and radioactive maguffins. It’s all about the style, the feel, and the back-chat. It’s about capturing a certain mood, a nostalgia, and running with it. Taken on these terms, I think we can say that the book is a success. Christopher manages to balance the detective tropes with the SF stuff pretty well, while injecting enough of his own wry personality to bring the construct to life. His alternate history Hollywood feels like a real place, capturing both claustrophobically smoky confines and vast open spaces without having to wax overly lyrical.

It is in the characterisation that Christopher loses me. Classic detectives are a seemingly cold breed, full of dark wit and cynical expectation. They can be cold, brutal, and dispassionate – so it’s easy to see how a robot detective could be a good fit. Ray has imprints from his maker’s memories, and Ada has a similar streak of humanity in her speech patterns, but we are never permitted to forget that these are machines following logic pathways on a single-minded goal. The very thing that makes for the best detective-noir is the furious humanity burning at the heart of the characters; the fundamentally good man who is all-but-crushed under the weight of a wicked world, yet still tries to do the right thing in the end. Ray has the patter but he lacks that essential core we need to be able to properly engage with him. It’s a shame. Ada is somehow lots more fun – full of snark and wit. (I almost get a GLaDos vibe from her but that might just be my imagination.) Other characters are slender at best, being often defined by just one or two features. They do not matter to Ray as people, so we in turn do not feel their depth or value.

In the end I was left a little dissatisfied. I wanted to love this book so much, but it didn’t quite hit it for me. The plot made sense (or at least enough sense within its own parameters) but one of two areas seemed fudged over (the sheer number of G-men in on the conspiracy) or were oddities for no reason (the second person known as Sparks). The humour was there but it was never laugh out loud, while the crime elements lacked the shock value of the pre-code era. There is definite potential in the character of Ray Electromatic: a slight unease at the way his memory is wiped each day; that reliance on Ada, and the surfacing of his maker’s memories. Future volumes would do well to delve into these areas to bring some tension between the two machines and allow Ray to become more than just a simulacrum. I sincerely hope they do because there are at least two more books to follow, and the concept is strong enough to be given another chance. For now though, I can only give it…

GS Rating: 3.5/5

GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak

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