REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


JONATHAN LETHEM – Gun, with Occasional Music.Harcourt Brace & Co., hardcover, 1994. Tor, paperback, 1995.

   Lethem was “born in the 60s, watched TV in the 70s, and started writing in the 80s.” This is his first novel, he’s at work on a second, and that’s all we know.

   Conrad Metcalf in a Private Inquisitor, which is the futuristic equivalent of a PI. (“PQ” doesn’t quite have the same ring to ot, somehow.) An ex-client of his is murdered, and the man the Inquisitors suspect of killing him comes to Metcalf protesting his innocence, and asking for help.

   Metcalf turns him down, but then for quixotic reasons of his own decides to become involved. This is sort of a PI story, after all. Problem is, nobody wants him poking around — not the dead man’s wife, not an enigmatic gangster, and most of all not the Inquisitors. It’s a brave new world, and it such creatures in it.

   This is a mystery/science fiction hybrid that won’t satisfy either camp. For SF fans there’s a potentially interesting culture set an unspecified number of years in the future, but there’s no background or rationale for it at all — it just is.

   For PI fans, Metcalf is almost a stereotypical mean streets kin of guy, but the futuristic trappings — evolved animals, a taboo against questions, musical news, “babyheads,” Karma cards (a debit balance means the freezer), and more — only prove distracting.

   Lethem is a moderately good writer in terms of prose and pacing, though there’s not a great deal of characterization aside from Metcalf himself. I was able to get through the book with some enjoyment (though not a great deal) because I’m an ardent fan of both hardboiled PI’s and science fiction. I can’t imagine any other kind of reader liking this much at all.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.


Editorial Update:   This book received more acclaim from SF fans than Barry expected. It was ranked Number One in that year’s Locus poll for Best First Novel, was nominated for a Nebula, and had considerable support for a Hugo. I don’t recall mystery fans taking much if any notice of it, but I may be wrong about that. If you’re interested in learning more about Lethem’s career, you can do no better than to check out his entry in the online SF Encyclopedia.