by Warren Hammond
Edited by James Frenkel
Cover Artist: Chris McGrath
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765312723
Date: 26 June 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Crossing the streams of gumshoe noir and colonial SF, KOP pairs a "dirty" has been cop with a promising rookie to uncover the truth behind a grisly murder that may, or may not, lead back to city hall. Set on a world that's a fusion of 40s LA, 'Nam, and every economically devastated country on Earth, the author has made up a world that's part SF, part classic police thriller. It's pretty good, but not quite as original as it thinks it is.
Juno Mozambe, the main character in KOP, is an aging cop in a dirty organization who's coming to grips with the realization it's time to get out. We quickly discover that he's got a wife and money enough to last them...so the real mystery of the book is what he's still doing working the streets. The most likely answer is simply that his identity is tied up in the power he exerts as a member of the force, and simply making the rounds to collect payoffs from brothels and gabling parlors fills up the days. Like Dennis Quaid's character in The Big Easy, he's not written as a bad guy, just part of a system where payoffs to cops and organized crime are the norm. Never especially eloquent, Juno used to let his fists do his explaining but neural damage to his right hand has prompted him to find easier employment. He'd be a classic has been cop, except that his marriage seems to be managing, and his drinking is more or less under control.
The only thing that he really has been keeping under control is his temper, but he has sufficient self awareness to know that he's half the man he used to be and that beating people up is a younger man's game. Most of the time.
A new mayor is pushing for reform, or maybe just for a new gang to move in that he gets a bigger take from, and as a result the head of the police force, who happens to be Juno's ex-partner, has to go. So the mayor saddles the chief with an observer to watch his every move, which is very uncomfortable for the heavily mob connected chief. When an army Lieutenant turns up murdered and hacked up in an alley outside a brothel, and the mayor starts sending out signals that it doesn't rate special attention, the chief smells involvement, and pulls Juno off his vice/collection sinecure to head the investigation, sure he'll uncover useful dirt on the mayor that can be used to unseat him, or at least provide some leverage for the KOPs.
Now, if Juno does come up with anything, he wouldn't be much of a spokesperson, having been "dirty" all his working life (like everyone on the force). So the chief teams him up with Maggie Orzo, a rookie, one with great academy scores, a wealthy family, ideals that haven't had a chance to tarnish, and a great set of gams. Actually, I'm not sure the author ever mentions her legs, but it's clear that she's good looking, good enough looking that Juno's wife Niki notices that he's hornier than he has been in ages. So, if this autumn-spring detective team does come up with anything that can be used against the mayor, the rookie will be the PR poster child striking a blow for clean government.
For the rest of the novel Juno and Maggie crawl backwards up the trail of blood and betrayal that leads towards city hall. Maggie is initially bent out of shape to discover that Juno hasn't had clean hands since he'd been paired with the chief, long ago. Though he assures her that everyone on the force is dirty to some degree, and always will be, she hangs onto the belief that things don't always have to be that way, and that the mayor's anti-corruption rhetoric is genuine, and not just a cover for his struggle for control of the police force.
In the tradition of LA noir PI novels, the pair dig deeper and deeper until they uncover what seems to them to be the ultimate evil in trafficking, only to find that the quarry is one step ahead of them.
I had a hard time getting started with KOP, but by the time I was finished I'd become convinced that Warren Hammond has a bright future writing dark stories, whether they're SF or not. As a noir cop thriller, this is a pretty good read. I do have some issues with how quickly Maggie accepts walking on the dark side in order to make the case, and with Juno's crush on her and his internal conflict about being faithful to his wife. The latter is a nice midlife fantasy, but it gets resolved much too neatly. What does ring true is Juno's temper. Handy for an enforcer and a handicap in polite society, he owes his livelihood to partners first Paul, now Maggie, that can see his usefulness and keep him under control. Usually. Still, the story is generally gritty, believable and full of noir standards: crooked cops; succession of power in crime families; drugs; gambling and prostitution; and the almost forgotten notion of redemption.
What initially put me off about KOP is that it's only barely Science Fiction, and not really enough so to be worth crossing over from its corrupt police procedural core into the off-world fiction it dresses itself up as. Set on a poor colony planet where the local economy has crashed and burned, and the only thing people have left to sell is vice, the author has stripped almost every bit of future tech imaginable from the story under the notion that the planet can't afford it and has to make do with a level of technology that comes across as a mix of 1940s and 2010. Cars have internal combustion engines and only the reasonably well to do have one. Everyone has a cell phone, though, and they project holographic images besides. The off-worlders pack a lot of tech under their skin, everything from lasers in their fingertips and high voltage meshes for self defense to skin that changes texture and enhanced physiques, both for power and pleasure. Nice, but nothing Gibson couldn't have done in Neuromancer, which the author obliquely points out himself as he catalogs the available mods. Still, it's all just fancy "nip and tuck" and little that would be really out of place in contemporary LA.
The bottom line is that with a little judicious use of global replacements for a few key words and the story could slip into the here and now in any one of a few seedy cities, from New Orleans to Guadalajara, without straining its credibility. The rub, I expect, is that in order to do so, the author would have had to do some real research, rather than just make things up as he went along, and in the end he manages to write a more than decent story, so I suppose I should be happy with his decision and the result.
But I think that some authenticity would have more than made up for the only mildly exotic nature of the off-world locale, an urban tropical environment with an over abundance of geckos and lizards standing in for rats and dogs.
There are a few notions that merit consideration and are fairly original. The world of Lagarto is a clone of early 20th century Earth because it can't afford galactic technology, so they mine the online library of human knowledge to come up with obsolete tech that can be built locally. Which means cars with combustion engines are about as advanced as it gets. So the haves and the have-nots of this future are separated by the level of technology they have.
Socially, it appears to be the author's take that without any useful tech or unique products to export, the society will become ghettoized to make the economy of vice a way of life. I'm good with that, as we certainly see it happening in depressed economies around the world today, but I'm not sure where the drive to keep it a secret (even an open one) comes from. There don't seem to be any efforts by Earth to reform Lagarto, so what utility there is to pretending to be a clean world is lost on me. Like Juno's own motivations, perhaps it all comes down to what you have to do to look yourself in the mirror.
One gets the feeling from the press materials that accompany KOP that the idea of combining Chandleresque noir with science fiction is new. Hardly. If one wants to go back to the 80s you'll find that the whole cyberpunk movement was really tech-noir, and if you want some more recent examples, I strongly recommend you read both Chris Moriarty's debut novel Spin State(1), as well as Altered Carbon(2), with which Richard Morgan started his string of gripping SF noir thrillers.
KOP is good. It may even herald the arrival of an author who will become very good. But it fails to live up to the hype that accompanies it. Author Warren Hammond might be the next Dashiel Hammond, as David Drake opines...but he's not quite there yet. I feel bad pointing it out, because he seems like a sharp and interesting guy. I just hope he doesn't believe the hype being spun around his first book and slack off in the sequel.
Bantam Spectra: ISBN 0553382136 PubDate: 10/07/03
2 – Altered Carbonby Richard Morgan