New York Nights: Volume One of the Virex Trilogy
by Eric Brown
(Victor Gollancz, £16.99, 261 pages, hardback; published 18 May 2000. Mass market paperback, £6.99, 327 pages, published 2 April 2001.)
How do you like your detectives?
With a shot of bourbon? With a vintage car? A cigar and a raincoat? A suitcase full of clichés? It is widely accepted that the nineteenth century was when detective fiction began, and on a very basic level, the fiction written then was not so different from what is written now: in terms of form and ideology, from William Godwin's Caleb Williams to the modern day works, there have been certain traits present. Certain traits that Eric Brown, for his new - and completely unexpected - novel is happy to employ.
For example, both in the last century and today, detective fiction tends to be in the form of a linear narrative, and it tends to be conservative in its sense of justice and order. However, in Brown's attempt to question the motivations of the guilty, and (subtextually) to cast doubt on what guilt actually means, New York Nights is certainly much closer to something like Edgar Allen Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue".
But of course, this being a piece of detective fiction - and a fun one - in which action is a character, and in which Brown dilutes his customarily deep thought-processing with some great scatter-gunning set pieces, the novel owes plenty to the 'hardboiled' movement. Which is not to say that he has necessarily read any of the above, of course, but personally I would be surprised if this were the case. Like Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, for example, New York Nights (where even the title is somewhat iconic) is a direct reflection of contemporary American anxieties; and concerns the manifestations of a national dream turned into a nightmare. There is a degree of nostalgia, I think, for a mythical past: that of the American frontier. And Brown certainly deals with essentially American milieu and subject matter in this particular piece.
New York Nights tells - in a sense, superimposes - two time-scales: the days of the investigation which are started by the disappearance of a woman who is part of a somewhat subversive lesbian-chic movement; and the days of the events which lead up to it. But Eric Brown, now playing in away-side colours, has of course made things more difficult than that. The detective who looks into the case, Hal Halliday (who sounds like a detective; his partner's name is Barney Kleuger) is assaulted, befriended, and is even re-introduced to a member of the family with whom he hasn't shared words for some time. All as part of the case. And if it's true that Brown, to some extent, has used pre-existing characters (or compounds thereof) in an off-the-peg beginning, it is also true that the plot gets thicker, as we knew it would: the fear that might be experienced on opening the book to discover a mildish and only mildly original tale of detectives in the near future soon evaporates in the book's gleam and glitter. A lot of heat in this book. And what is immediately evident, and is not always evident in Brown's short stories, is the sense of fun inherent. There are some really cracking jokes: from the off you can sense the fun, the scarcely-suppressed grin.
We have a detective (minus a drinking problem, unless you count a dependence on caffeine); his chubby business partner (health problems, a wife in the ground, and an addiction to her ghost in a VR club). But Eric Brown has one major hard science ace up his sleeve, just when it might seem the case that we have great little runaround of a plot. It's a book of acrobatic cunning; in which sex is used as a means to identification and characterisation, rather than existing as a tepid knee-trembler, a pause-for-breath scene after the dick has just been pummelled and the moll is on hand for the provision of comfort. (The detective's girlfriend has a self-esteem problem of her own, successful though she is.)
This book is more than fancy ball control; it's a book with real heart, and with stamina. As Eric Brown has been in a class of his own for some time (his very early short story, "The Time-Lapsed Man", I still regard as one of the finest tales of the previous millennium's final two decades), this verdict, perhaps, comes as no great surprise. New York Nights is brilliant.
Review by David Mathew.
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© David Mathew 23 September 2000