Sharp by Alex Hughes
Well here we go with the second in the novel series which began with Clean and now continues with Sharp by Alex Hughes A Mindspace Investigation Novel (Roc, 2013) although it seems Roc sneaked out an ebook novella called Payoff in between. The headline to this review is that this second novel is easily as good, if not better than, the first. However, if you haven’t read the first, you might find this takes a little getting into. That said, this novel avoids the bear pit waiting for new authors who start a series. Too often, we get the 1960’s pop record phenomenon. So for example, “Shake It Up, Baby” was recorded by the Top Notes and the The Isley Brothers. It then became “Twist and Shout” as recorded by the Beatles, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, The Searchers, and so on. In other words, once you hit the “winning formula” you don’t change nothing too much. The bean-counters convince the artists/authors that what worked the first time will likely work the second time (and even the third) before the buying public gets tired of hearing/reading the same thing over and over again. That’s why so many series stop after three books. There just isn’t enough development in the underlying ideas to keep the continuing work fresh and interesting. Potentially loyal fans lose faith and stop buying. The authors’ careers often never recover. Going back to earlier times, it used to be easier because most authors wrote standalones or only continued into a series when they had something interesting to say. Today the norm is for publishers to buy series and this stresses the authors’ creativity. Fortunately, Alex Hughes has managed to move us forward enough to keep everyone happy.
Adam, our damaged, level-eight, independent telepath continues to be employed full-time by this future world police department. Ostensibly he’s only employed as an interrogator but, when the call comes, he goes out into the field to evaluate crime scenes and support the detectives in their work. Because he can access the Mindspace, he can often understand the emotional context for the crimes. Unfortunately, his Abilities have been damaged and this hampers his use of telepathy and access to Mindspace. Because he’s in line for redundancy in a major cost-cutting exercise, he’s hiding the extent of his injuries. He’s also struggling with his addiction to Satin while being kept at arm’s length by Homicide Detective Isabella Cherabino who’s still angry at him for creating a link to her mind. Within the Police Department, Lieutenant Paulsen seems to be his only supporter/protector. With his increasing sense of isolation, it falls to Swartz, his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, to keep him clean. Without this support, he would undoubtedly have relapsed and probably died on the streets.
We start off with two separate investigations. There seems to be a rash of hijackings with high-tech equipment being stolen. Then, taking him back in time, one of his students turns up murdered. This forces him to contact the Telepath Guild which, in turn, triggers an investigation. His exploits as described in the first novel have also attracted the attention of the FBI which begins an independent investigation. All this stress is not good for our weakened hero. Unfortunately, Swartz chooses this moment to have a major heart attack and may not be going to live too long. This proves the trigger for serious emotional problems for our hero but, and this represents a very nice irony, it also proves his ultimate salvation.
If there is a problem with these two books, it’s that we’ve been pitched in medias res. Of course this is not inherently problematic — book series have to start somewhere — but, so far, we’ve only seen the recovering addict side of our hero’s personality. Before the catastrophe deriving from his addiction to Satin, he seems to have led a relatively ordinary life, insofar as the life of a strong telepath can ever be considered ordinary. During this early period, he inspired what has proved the long-term loyalty, if not the love, of Kara. Subsequently he’s contrived to form an emotional bond with Cherabino which, given the present state of his personality, is somewhat surprising. I know authors don’t like prequels very much, but I think there’s a case for showing us what he was like before and explaining exactly what led to him being exposed to Satin. In this book, we’ve got a little more detail of why he’s carrying a burden of guilt but there’s still so much unexplained. Some detailed flashbacks or something freestanding would help us readers have a better sense of who this man is and why so many people think he’s worth saving.
Put all this together and Sharp proves a very enjoyable read. It’s not trying to do too much. It simply delivers a very good science fiction police procedural in an evolving context. Indeed, with different calls on his loyalties now established and new emotional vulnerabilities exposed, it’s all very nicely set up for the next in the series.
For a review of the first in the series, see Clean.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.