Emissaries From the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro
Ignoring the old chestnut of the nature/nurture debate, we contrive to become people as we age. How successful we are depends on a variety of factors varying from blind luck to judicious planning. As we look back on the roads we have travelled, some moments stand out as signposts, vaguely pointing us in potentially desirable directions. In a retrospective mood, I am arbitrarily reminded of two quite different moments. The first comes from an early foray into Sherlock Holmes where, during an investigation into the disappearance of Silver Blaze, Holmes enigmatically opined that the failure of the dog to bark was a “curious incident”. The beauty of this is that it leaves something completely obvious lying out in the open for all to see, waiting only for the author to explain just why silence is so revealing. The second was a cartoon introducing an article in a serious periodical about how one assesses credibility in a narrative. It showed a crocodile on trial for murder and, under cross-examination, it was retorting, “Of course, I’m cold-blooded. I’m a reptile, you idiot!”
Humour done well is always satisfying because it punctures the self-importance of an individual or group. In Biter, Bit moments, those who make a living out of criminal trials always look to twist words to show people in the best or worst possible light. Trying to convince a jury that an accused is a cold-blooded killer seems a sound strategy yet such statements of the obvious are often double-edged. When it comes to judging the credibility of witnesses, we use our own experience of life. If we were in a similar situation, what would we do? What have we seen others say and do in such situations? If there is a general trend and the accused matches this model, the characterisation of the accused is more credible. But if the accused claims feelings and emotions out of step with our experience, this accused lacks credibility. Once we enter the world of fiction, the same rules apply to naturalistic storytelling. We empathise and identify with the characters who tend to act as we would act. So, even though Sherlock Holmes is clearly in a league of his own, Watson, Lestrade and others represent the humans of ordinary ability as foils to the great detective. All great problem solvers require a sidekick to ask the everyman questions. If the author trespasses into “unnatural” surroundings, he or she needs to define the rules. If there is new science or magic, how is it supposed to work? Now, when we see people reacting to these new environments, we have expectations on how they will react. When done well, they will act credibly.
I confess to being a sucker for books that unashamedly wear their intelligence on their sleeves. Perhaps I have a general control freaky that prefers ‘i’ to be dotted and ‘t’s crossed. Whatever the reason, I find myself immediately seduced when an author thinks so clearly on paper that every answer to every question just feels right. There is, of course, a trap because some authors are just too clever for their own good. Their imagination produces situations so baroque and unreal that there is little interest in disentangling their Gordian Knots. They become self-indulgent. But, as in Castro’s case, the best authors are minimalist, doing only as much as they need to get the situation defined and the characters off and running. Then, if dogs happen not to bark, this adds to the pleasure of the experience when the silence is later explained.
No-one can ever say with certainty why it happens. It may be an entirely objective assessment of a book — that there is something so powerful about it that it demands to be heard. Or it may be that there is a coincidence of mood — that the reader is predisposed, for some unquantifiable reason, to be entranced by a book. There is never certainty in life. All I can say is that, in this instance, I am in awe of Emissaries From the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro. How or why this has happened is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that this was a book I read from cover to cover in a single sitting, determined to see how it all played out in the end. This is a cross-genre book blending science fiction and a mystery element. It begins with Counsellor Andrea Cort arriving on an artificial environment created by alien intelligences. She has been sent (or summoned) to investigate the murder of two members of a human team invited by the aliens to observe the habitat and its “animals”. The task looks simple. There are a limited number of people in a closed environment. Picking out which one is the “villain” should not be too taxing. Except little is what it appears to be and, thanks to the initially unobtrusive way in which the narrative develops, we are suddenly pitched into successively different explorations of the environment in which the “cast” find themselves. Everything is exactly what it appears to be except that it takes a magician to keep showing us why the dogs are not barking. There is a reason for everything and I found myself tipping my hat to the author on a regular basis as what was standing in plain sight was so elegantly reinterpreted. Is Andrea Cort a new Sherlock Holmes? Well, I doubt Castro had him in mind when creating this character and the thinking processes are rather different. But both have their own demons and see the world through eyes that are somehow better able to see beyond the surface reality and to ask the questions we would all like to think we could ask given the time to think and analyse. I suspect Doyle would have enjoyed this novel. It has a strong story and a continuously inventive way of entertaining us with understated intelligence.
For once, I will not engage in any spoilers or discussions of the way in which the narrative is developed. I suspect everyone will find their own delights and I will not risk spoiling the moments by my own heavy-handedness. Let me simply recommend it as a must read. Hopefully, the sequel will be just as good.