Bone Wires by Michael Shean
Daniel Gray is the archetypically ambitious company man, his eyes focused on the bottom line, hoping to ensure his promotion by bringing in his quota of results. Brutus Carter, a veteran senior officer, is less engaged in the corporate side of the business, but that doesn’t mean he’s uninterested in his job in Homicide Solutions. Yes, it’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? That a future society will privatise law enforcement and turn it into a business. At a stroke, this moves us away from a service ethic to protect the public and into an interstitial role located somewhere between insurance and the form of protection racket originally favoured by the criminal gangs. It’s somewhat ironic I should be reading Bone Wires by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) now because it’s predicted that private companies will be running parts of the British policing service within the decade. Just as the corporations have been moving into the provision of prison services both here and in America‚ just imagine the view you would have of your job if it depends on maximising the number of people in jail. Now consider the possibility that the same company running jails gets to investigate crime. That means we can have a production line of people brought before the courts in the hope they will be sent to the corporate jails. I’m sure outsourcing is a wonderful idea in some quarters, but applying it to critical public services seems a little dangerous. That’s why one side of Michael Shean’s vision is labelled the Pacification Division — keeping the “ordinary” population pacified can be good business.
Well, as is required in stories like this, our pair of homicide detective pull one of the more exciting deaths. A senior police administrator has been left in a back alley with his spine surgically removed. He’s carrying a wad of cash protected by a bomb to disable the unwary which suggests he was into something illegal. Put the two together and this could be the high-profile case to give young Daniel his promotion. Except when management find out their man had been selling information to the wrong people, they want the investigation kept very low profile — not quite what Daniel wanted to hear. He also surprises himself by being annoyed at the suggestion he would not want to track down the killer(s). Perhaps he might actually become a detective rather than just an employee protecting the value of his stock options. Curiously, when there’s a second killing with the spine removed, Daniel only gets a small budget to investigate. It’s like his bosses don’t want him to solve it. Fortunately, even with only a few hours available, he begins to find interesting pieces of information so that, when the third body shows up, he can see a link between the two new victims. With a search warrant in his hand, he breaks down the nominated door and finds butchery on a scale he had never considered. So, more by accident than good judgement, he gets his promotion. This should be immensely satisfying, but something doesn’t feel quite right. Worse, he’s begun a relationship with one of the witnesses from the first murder case. This is against company rules and, when Vice discover it, a blackmail situation emerges to push him in directions he might not want to go.
So what do we make of all this? Bone Wires is a rather cunningly constructed book. It looks as if it’s going to be science fiction with horror overtones but, when you step back, you can see the horror is more window dressing than anything. It’s just a sop to the Cerberus instincts of those readers who like a little blood and gore with their police procedurals. The real point of the story is the politics and economics of the corporation running the policing service. Because of his rather public success in exposing a serial killer, Daniel becomes a poster boy for the company, showing how Homicide Solutions really can boost the profit margins. So if his investigations were to take the wrong direction and show the company in a bad light, the stock price would fall and the corporation would find a way to cut him loose. This conflict of interest takes centre stage as Daniel has to decide whether his new-found interest in being a detective is real.
If this plot is to be credible, the detective must be given a problem to solve that, like an onion, takes him through different layers towards the central core and questions of possible commercial significance. The thing about raw onions is that, as you begin to cut into the outer layers, gaseous acids are released which produce irritation of the eyes and tears. This is a disincentive to further cutting. As I’ve mentioned, the initial presentation is of a murder with the body mutilated by the removal of the spine. When more bodies are found with their spines removed, the temptation is to assume the solution of the new murders also solves the first crime. Indeed, the corporation declares all related murders solved, closes the files and promotes the “successful” detective. But suppose the first death is actually part of a rather different scenario. When Daniel comes under pressure because of the blackmail and looks beyond the surface reality, how should he react if reopening the first murder file could mean he loses his job?
Bones Wires is set in the same Wonderland universe as Michael Shean’s first book, Shadow of a Dead Star, but apart from a couple of details on body enhancements, there’s no positive link between them. This book is also somewhat unconventional in that he’s been publishing it as weekly serial on the Curiosity Quills site. So those of you who were alert could have read this as it was being written without having to buy it. I’m all for innovation and this is pleasingly proactive on the part of the publisher. Now that it’s finished and ready to buy as a single package. . . Well, this avoids everything connected to the jaw-dropping plot twist at the end of Shadow of a Dead Star. Presumably the weirdness of all that will be explained in what’s scheduled to be his third book titled Redeye. Thus, Bone Wires is a far better worked plot and, although it leaves the door obviously open for a sequel, it does tie everything up neatly. In more general terms, I was impressed by the different way of approaching two fairly well-established tropes. Michael Shean knows how to avoid the clichés. But the prose is less interesting this time around, possibly because it was written against the clock with slightly less time for reflection. Overall, this is enjoyable and worth reading as a police procedural and political thriller set in a future world where the economics of corporate life produce interestingly different social outcomes.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.