A PULP HERO FOR THE INTERNET ERA
Detective stories have gone hand-in-hand with cheap, ephemeral entertainment since Arthur Conan Doyle published the first adventure of Sherlock Holmes in the November 1887 issue of a paperback magazine. The "pulp" adventures of the Twenties and Thirties got their name from the inexpensive paper on which they were printed; it was in these flimsy dime-store magazines that the American noir detective was born, and people bought them by the millions. In the 1950s, when the mass-market paperback became the new standard for bargain reading material, mystery readers snapped them up faster than the M&Ms in a bowl of trail mix. And now, as the e-book market finally becomes a serious player in publishing, who's leading the way in sales? You guessed it: mystery writers.
It isn't hard to see why. A good detective mystery doesn't lend itself to slow, leisurely reading and re-reading. It grabs you by the throat from the first page, keeps you on the edge of your seat as the story unfolds, and carries you along to a surprising, satisfying conclusion. A second reading will never reproduce that sense of confusion, suspense, and foreboding that keeps you turning the pages; you already know the end of the story. Mystery lovers go through a LOT of books, and they go through them fast. With a literary appetite like that, you're not going to be buying hardcovers. Even if the expense weren't an issue, the weight and bulk would be a major drag when you're wandering around the house with your book in one hand and the vacuum cleaner in the other.
AND THEN SHE WAS GONE is a book tailor-made for the modern mystery reader. First off, there's the amazing price -- half the cost of a mass market paperback, and less than a lot of people pay for their morning lattes. Even if you're not familiar with J. Daniel Sawyer's ground-breaking work in the realm of podcast fiction, including the country house mystery DOWN FROM TEN and the science fiction noir thriller PREDESTINATION, the price point is low enough that anybody looking for a good story should be willing to give it a try.
Second, there's the pacing. This is a taut, gripping mystery with prose so tight you could bounce a quarter off it. The plot twists and turns through the glitz and the gutters of the San Francisco Bay Area: from the suburban drug trade of the Oakland Hills, through a bioethics symposium at Stanford, to the kink/bondage scene of the City itself. Detective Clarke Lantham narrates the action in a tight, spare and sardonic voice that captures the spirit of the noir detective genre without falling prey to its verbal excesses.
That bring me to the third selling point: this is very much a *modern* pulp mystery. On the one hand, Lantham is a classic noir detective in many ways: a disgraced and jaded ex-cop, haunted by his demons, hungering for some kind of personal redemption, woefully single, struggling to keep his financial head above water, living by his own code of ethics. On the other hand, Lantham is a twenty-first century man through and through, with the detective tools to match. It's hard to envision Sam Spade tracking a suspect with the GPS locator on a disposable cell phone, using a script hack on a Facebook account to find a missing person, or cruising around an upper-middle class neighborhood with an open laptop in search of a Wi-Fi connection. The themes of the plot are modern, too, with a mystery that tackles tough topics like bioethics, neo-primitivism and man's responsibilities to the rest of the biosphere -- as well as more down-to-earth fare, like the complex social networks of modern American teenagers. It is this fresh, modern spin on the classic detective tropes that makes the book so distinctive and compelling.
AND THEN SHE WAS GONE is not a perfect book. The plot takes some liberties with science that strain the limits of the plausible. For the average reader this might not be a big deal; after all, best-selling authors have asked us for similarly-improbable leaps of faith in the past, and no one seems to have complained too much. For me, having been trained as a scientist, it was a bit harder to swallow.
What the average mystery reader might find more troublesome, however, is that Lantham doesn't even uncover some of his most important clues on his own. In a move that might be a little *too* 21st Century, Lantham hires a subcontractor to handle the heavy-duty techno-sleuthing for him. Our hero gets several crucial pieces of the puzzle, not through his own cleverness or resourcefulness or courage, but because he "knows a guy". It feels a bit like using "Phone A Friend" on the last question of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire": effective, sure, but a little anticlimactic.
Still, it's important to take the book for what it is. Pulp adventures are not about die-hard realism, or even about the detective proving himself to be smarter than his adversaries. No, what matters for the pulp detective is how he uses the information he finds, and whether he can get himself and his charges out of danger in one piece. In this, AND THEN SHE WAS GONE delivers beautifully, with a white-knuckled climax full of all the bullets, blood and pulse-pounding excitement you could ask for.
The book is subtitled "A Clarke Lantham Mystery", hinting that Sawyer has more mysteries in the works for his beleaguered detective. AND THEN SHE WAS GONE certainly drops some tantalizing hints for the future: Lantham makes some enemies in this book, and from the look of it they are *not* the sort of people you want to piss off. If the last ten pages don't leave you clamoring for the next book in the series, I don't know what's wrong with you. Hollywood wishes it could write sequel-bait this good.
The Verdict: With an engaging and fully modern shamus, a fast-paced narrative style and a mystery that probes the bleeding edges of science and culture, AND THEN SHE WAS GONE sets the standard for a new age of pulp-noir adventure.
(reviewed the day of purchase)