If You Could Read My Mind: Today, we have novels that excel in worldbuilding—whether it be the past, or a sci-fi near-future—and two that bring us humor while operating within the genre of crime fiction.
‘The Lincoln Highway’ by Amor Towles
A new novel by Amor Towles is always a special occasion. He’s only written two novels prior to this one, but when they’re “Rules of Civility” and “A Gentleman in Moscow,” one anticipates any new work, and is filled with literary excitement. This one can best be described as a road novel that’s set in 1954 but, while it bears no relation to anything written by Jack Kerouac, it’s got “classic” stamped all over it, and maintains the high standard we expect from anything written by Towles. At the center of this story are brothers Emmett and Billy. Emmett is 18 years old and has just been released from juvie for involuntary manslaughter—retaliating to someone who was picking on him. That person, unfortunately, fell, hit his head, and died. Billy, on the other hand, is eight years old and is your typical know-it-all.
The brothers live in Nebraska, their Dad just passed away, and their Mom abandoned them years ago. So the plan is to look for their mother in San Francisco. Of course, the best laid plans often go astray, and thanks to two inmates of the juvenile center stowing away in the car that brought Emmett home, a series of adventures commences, ending up in New York City. Duchess and Wooley are the two, and they’re wonderfully fleshed out characters. This is, in fact, a deceptive novel. You’ll start it and think it’s such a small story, wondering where Towles will take us. But you’ll find yourself invested in the rich characters, their individual stories, and caring about where this will all lead to. I especially liked Billy who, while a pain in the butt and you’d often wish he’d just keep quiet at times, you will end up caring for mostly because of his heart of gold.
‘The Body Scout’ by Lincoln Michel
If there’s one thing you’ll have to hand to Lincoln Michel in this first sci-fi novel of his, it’s the consummate worldbuilding of the near-future, and how he creates truly engaging characters—characters who live and breathe, as and who we empathize with, even if they’re cyborgs, half-humans, and freaks. To make the imagined world have strong ties with reality, he excels in creating a milieu where professional sports, the grand American pastime of Baseball and the World Series, all operate in this futuristic world. It differs from sci-fi that take place on distant planets or centered on space travel. Instead, Michel gamely sticks to terra firma, while exploring wild possibilities that resonate precisely because they’re related to the world we know today.
Kobe is our main character, a cyborg who once had his day as a pitcher in a professional league but is now reduced to being a scout for the Monsanto Mets, and following the exploits of the team’s star player and his brother by adoption, JJ Zunz. In this future baseball league, it’s the biopharmas that own the teams, and one conceit is how Monsanto owns all of Central Park, hometown of their corporate office, training grounds, and home stadium. Storyline has to do with JJ being murdered while at bat, and Kobo being tasked to find out what happened and who’s behind this death that will affect the outcome of the ongoing World Series. Gene modification, body parts enhancements, conspiracy theories, and a waif whose genes are the target of the biopharmas, all make for an engrossing cocktail of futuristic reading fun.
‘The Rabbit Factor’ by Antti Tuomainen
Previously regarded as the suspense king of Helsinki for his dark mysteries, Antti Toumainen suddenly shifted to writing humor-filled crime fiction and became even more popular. This one is his latest and, the good news is, it’s already been optioned by Amazon Prime, with Steve Carrell cast as protagonist, Henri Koskinen, an actuary who suddenly inherits an adventure park upon the untimely death of his brother. He’s constantly taking pains to explain it’s an adventure park and not an amusement park—explaining that in the latter, you passively subject yourself to the rides, while the former is a more interactive experience, whether for children or for adults. And the crime element comes in the form of how his brother borrowed a lot of money from the local mob boss.
Of course, the boss now sends his henchmen to get their money back, plus the exorbitant interest that has accrued. Henri is the classic dweeb, a man at home with figures and probabilities, and clumsy when relating to people. So it’s far from a walk in the park as he negotiates with the park employees, the park patrons, the criminals and police detectives hanging around his new place of business. To complicate matters, there’s Laura, an artist who’s been running the park for Henri’s brother. Henri knows he feels something for Laura and senses it’s mutual, but it’s all too new and radical for him. I can imagine Carrell playing this part to a tee. More amusing is how Henri interacts with the criminal elements that have suddenly been thrust into his life. Between a rock and a hard place is what best describes what follows, all leavened with humor.
‘Once Upon a Crime’ by Fergus Craig
With rich irony, Exeter becomes a “character” in this crime comedy novel—existing as the crime capital of the Cornwall and Devon areas of England, while striving to shake off this reputation and become the culture capital instead. Hard to achieve when right at the center of the city, by the steps of the medieval church of St. Pancras, there’s a murder victim lying in full public view. It’s with this grim situation that we’re introduced to 40-ish detective Roger LeCarre. LeCarre is your typical noir gumshoe who’s got a severe drink problem, a marriage on the rocks, and is a dinosaur in the modern-day Exeter police force. To further complicate matters, it’s his partner who’s having an affair with his wife.
What follows is a blow-by-blow account of Roger’s exploits as he attempts to solve the crime of the murdered youth left lying in the city center. It doesn’t help when a call that comes in, saying he’s been looking in the wrong places, comes from an individual who subsequently ends up smashed to death on the pavement in front of a local mall—similarly bludgeoned by a blade and with “semper fidelis” tattooed on their chests. It’s the wry tone and constant tongue in cheek humor that sets this one apart, although to be honest, once you know where author Fergus Craig is heading with this, it does get repetitive and one-dimensional. This is Craig’s debut novel, so he’ll hopefully learn to add more texture in his future works.