One Way – S J Morden

S J Morden‘s One Way (review copy from Gollancz) is a serial killer murder mystery set on Mars – but with a strong socialist undercurrent running through it.

Xenosystems Operations has won a government contract to build a scientific research base on Mars.  Like every corporation, they are focused on the bottom line and their profit margin.  So they decide to crew the mission with convicted murderers taken from the prisons one of their sister companies own.  Cheap labour offered a deal, willing to take the risk of a one-way trip to Mars for some purposeful activity instead of a lifetime in solitary confinement.  Prisoners are hand-picked for relevant skills before they ended up in prison (construction, hydroponics, communications, medical skills etc).  They go through a gruelling final selection and training programme before the team is selected.

Frank Kittridge heads that team.  Imprisoned for the murder of his son’s drug dealer, he feels few regrets about the crime he committed, but wants to be a positive example for his son and the ex-wife that divorced him after his conviction.  With a background in construction he is perfectly placed to lead the team building the Mars base.  His nemesis is Brack, the prison guard sent with them to supervise the base construction and keep the team of prisoners in line throughout the build.  Brack is straight from the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman school of motivational leadership.  Brack offers Kittridge a chance to get home if he acts as his eyes and ears, reporting back on the rest of the team.

Kittridge’s team make it to Mars and start building the base.  But strange ‘accidents’ keep happening that end up killing the crew.  Funnily enough, each ‘accident’ happens just after that particular crew member has fulfilled their function, becoming surplus to requirements.  Kittridge realises there is a cold-blooded killer among them, and sets out to solve the mystery before the body count gets higher.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to solve this particular murder mystery.  One of the frustrations of One Way is just how predictable the plotting is, with relatively weak characterisation – barely enough to make one care about each victim of the killer.

What does lift One Way from the herd is the way that Kittridge’s story is intercut with material from Xenosystems Operations as they plan the mission and make choices about its design.  We see the very real consequences of decisions to trim costs: in one tense sequence in particular Kittridge barely makes it across the surface of Mars to retrieve equipment vital for the mission.  Where One Way is most compelling is in the way it shows the very real and very human consequences of those corporate decisions.  It acts as a strong warning about the risks of involving private corporations in high risk endeavours like space travel.  It comes as no surprise that the company has little regard for the human team it sends to Mars.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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From Darkest Skies – Sam Peters

From Darkest Skies is the debut novel from Sam Peters (review copy from Gollancz).  It’s a crime thriller set on a colony world in space.  Agent Keon Rause is newly returned home and investigating the deth from drug overdose of a celebrity, while on the side investigating the death of his wife in a terrorist attack several years previously.

This is solid and dependable stuff.  Think of a mismatched crew of investigators, led by Rause, all with different skills and mysterious backgrounds.  Think of a simple investigation that reveals a major conspiracy that threatens the world.  Think of signs that the wife’s death was not all it appeared to be.  You know what to expect with this kind of thing.

The book does have some interesting aspects to it.  Agent Rause has created an illegal android analogue of his late wife, Alysha, with a personality matrix built from everything that has been recorded of her life, opinions and what she did and believed.  Rause uses it as a comfort as he fails to come to terms with her death.  But it’s an imperfect copy, lacking Alysha’s inner life and deepest thoughts.  The android is unable to help him piece together what motivated Alysha to run away in her final hours of life and find herself on a train that was blown up by terrorists.  From Darkest Skies asks us how well we can ever know a person, even in a world of omni-present social media and surveillance.

Some interesting world-building is hinted at too.  Alien beings called The Masters were responsible for the destruction of large parts of Earth, and for dispersing its population throughout the universe on a number of colony worlds.  This piece of history is only mentioned in passing in this novel, but if offers some fascinating hints of where future books could go.

I will watch with interest to see what Peters comes up with next.  This is a promising debut.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Black Widow – Chris Brookmyre

I must confess, Jack Parlabane isn’t my favourite of Chris Brookmyre‘s characters, even if he is the author’s most famous creation.  There’s something about the grumpy journalist willing to resort to unethical methods in pursuit of a good story that normally just doesn’t click for me.

In Black Widow, Brookmyre’s latest (published by Little, Brown, who gave me a review copy through NetGalley), Parlabane is approached by the sister of a man killed when his car apparently ran off the road in an accident.  The sister believes her brother was murdered by his wife, a surgeon, who used the ‘accident’ to cover up the murder.  Scenting a story, Parlabane agrees to investigate.  From there, the story rattles along at a satisfying pace as Parlabane and the police investigate in parallel.  As always, it is full of satisfying twists and turns and surprises.

The Parlabane of Black Widow is a diminished man.  He is separated from his wife and living in a post-Leveson world of online media and recycled press releases that has little place for a journalist of his skills.  He ekes out a living writing content-less content for various online publishers: puff pieces and glorified advertising material.  In many ways, this bitter and self-pitying man is a more interesting character than the at times overbearing investigative journalist at the peak of his professional success.

But the real strength of Black Widow for me is in its portrayal of Diana Jager, the surgeon accused of her husband’s murder.  Jager has a controversial past: her anonymous blog about sexism in the medical profession went viral after she was critical of hospital IT staff.  Jager became the victim of doxxing and death threats, ultimately losing her job.  In Black Widow, Brookmyre examines the way we judge women, particularly those bold enough to articulate their opinions, and the prevalence of threats of violence to silence them.  Any woman who does not conform to a meek, wholesome stereotype is vulnerable to suspicion.  Although she was the undoubted victim of online harassment, the episode makes it easy for people to suspect her of the revenge murder of her hospital IT worker husband of six months.  The parallels with cases like that of Christopher Jefferies, whose reputation was destroyed by the media when he was arrested for the murder of missing woman Jo Yeates are obvious.  (She was actually murdered by a neighbour.)

This contemporary, thoughtful sensibility is what lifts Black Widow,  as so much of Brookmyre’s work, above the normal run of comic thrillers.

Goodreads rating: 4*