The Third Claw of God by Adam-Troy Castro
There is a heavy price to pay when the first novel you produce turns out to be a great book. Everyone looks to you to do the same again. Worse! Some expect you to do better. With Emissaries from the Dead, Castro, as an emerging American writing star, hit a proverbial home run. It was clearly one of the top five books of 2008. Now comes the sequel, The Third Claw of God.
One of the elements that made Emissaries so fascinating was the richly imagined context in which the murders took place. As a reader who enjoys watching a puzzle posed and then solved, the cleverness of the mystery and its resolution can fascinate no matter where it is set. But, in this case, the context itself was seamlessly a part of the mystery — just as much a part of the puzzle to be solved. In a conventional detective story set in a contemporary cityscape, the world is a part of the assumed common experience between the author and the reader. We all know how human life works. It does not have to be explained. The beauty of Emissaries lay in the need first to describe and then deconstruct the habitat and its resident animals, all created by the AIsource. The interaction between problem-solving and environment was the key to the novel’s success.
The hurdle Castro has to surmount is to continue the story of Andrea Cort in a context of similar inventiveness. In this, Castro fails. He produces a Golden Age style whodunit with a murder committed in a car stalled on a space elevator, thereby artificially limiting the pool of suspects. This follows in the well-worn footsteps of Agatha Christie with a train (Murder on the Orient Express) or hotel (The Mousetrap) cut off the from the rest of the world by an accident of the weather. I do not blame the author for resorting to a tried and trusted formula. It was almost impossible to create a second environment as perfect as the first habitat. He makes a sound decision to concentrate his attention more on the development of the narrative arc relating to Andrea Cort as a person and her developing relationship with the AIsource (although it is rather less forthcoming in this instalment).
But, in pursuing this story arc, he makes two misjudgements. There is a completely unnecessary Prologue. More importantly, he mishandles the issue of Dip. Corps’ exploitation of Andrea Cort. Allowing Antrec Pescziuwicz to make the “statement of the obvious” as a question comes at the wrong time and incites a false response from the heroine. The observation is a clever one and essential to making the narrative complete. Unfortunately, Andrea is portrayed as having a sharp analytical mind from an early age. A rebellious and resentful teenager would have been all over this issue, accusing Dip. Corps of staking her out as a goat to lure tigers from the jungle (or its equivalent). Thus, the more appropriate timing would have been for Pescziuwicz to ask his question directly after the assassination attempt on the space station and to receive an acknowledgement from one professional to another that he can see past the end of his nose.
That said, the more general mystery about the purpose of the murder and why the elevator car has stopped but no rescue is being made, is extremely well crafted. This is again work of the highest quality with some revelations that were delightfully obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Once I got over the rather more pedestrian context, the investigation of the murder itself and of the more significant patterns of motivation was fascinating. Castro has a knack for leaving bear pits in plain sight and encouraging the reader to fall into them.
The broader thematic concerns have also been crystallised. The series is about two allied but different issues. In simplistic terms, they are the process of change and the implications of the right to die. Change is a curious concept. It assumes an origin state and a transformation process to a resulting state. In the short term, this may be a rapid loss of old characteristics in favour of new. Or it may be a part of a wider pattern of evolution as a society or species slowly becomes something different. Some potentially misguided historians have argued that this is cyclical. Spengler, Toynbee and others have claimed to find repeated patterns as newly emerging civilisations slowly grow and then repeat the mistakes of the old. Castro makes this explicit by having Khaajiir be a Spengler-like academic who has studied what he claims to be the social dynamics of these cycles. Although he adopts the confusing notion of a civilisation as an entity, he accepts the multiplicity of cultures and subcultures that operate within it and upon it from outside. He is a kind of walking encyclopaedia, offering information about the past that may guide the process of contemporary change. As a kind of intellectual general, he implicitly recognises that inciting change rather than allowing cultures to evolve more naturally can and does provoke conservative forces into action to preserve the status quo. In the fight for change or the defence of “core values”, identifying “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “evil” becomes more difficult. It comes down to the methods used to provoke the change or defend the now since both camps may consider themselves justified in their aims.
On the second theme, there is much debate about whether individuals should be allowed to exercise the right to die with dignity. The answer is difficult because, in the majority of cases, the decision affects others whether socially, religiously or economically. This may be family and friends, insurance companies and their investors, etc. There have also been a number of instances involving groups like Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple where multiple suicides have taken place. The leadership of these groups has been able to influence the many to take their own lives. But some adult members have killed their own children. Judging whether one group intent upon suicide has the right to impose it on others is not a question capable of being answered in absolute terms. Perhaps we might want to uphold the right of adults, free of coercion, to end their own lives, but limit their freedom to take the lives of others without their informed consent.
The Third Claw of God ends nicely poised as positive and negative forces (and those in between) re-evaluate their positions and debate to what extent change is necessary or desirable. I wait with interest to see where the next book will take us. This leaves me with a now standard warning. Reading Emissaries from the Dead first is essential to get the most out of this sequel. Objectively, it is the better book but we may come to another cliché — that the sum of the parts may be greater than the whole, i.e. that the overall story may become better than the individual books. So The Third Claw of God is not quite as good in its own right, but it is nicely progressing the story. I unhesitatingly recommend it.
For a review of an outstanding collection, see Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories.