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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.

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.

For my review of the sequel, see The Third Claw of God and an outstanding collection Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories.

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