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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dyer's Killer Cell is DOA

Hunter Cell
By Joshua Dyer

(Cover art and design by Christopher Stroud)
March 15, 2013
182 pages
Sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Mash-ups can be fun to read, though probably a good deal less to write. To blend more than one type of story effectively -- for example, steam punk, which splices historical fiction with fantasy or science fiction -- takes confidence and a certain degree of fearlessness; How else can you be sure that what you have written while pursuing one genre doesn't violate the rules of one of the others you are following? It can be difficult enough just to keep the elements of your fictional universe sorted out as your tale progresses, let alone color within the lines of each type of story you are jamming together.

In short, there is a hell of a lot that can go wrong in a mash-up, which is probably why exceptional examples don't readily come to mind.

Characters can be less than compelling, description inadequate, dialog unbelievable or hackneyed. Sometimes the universe a writer constructs doesn't differ enough from the one we all normally live in to drive the story. Sometimes the details of the comingled genres don't really mesh. Occasionally the plot is too dense and complicated to easily follow; at other times it is too thin to engage readers and draw them in.

Sometimes all these things go wrong at once. When that happens, Katie bar the door.

Hunter Cell, Joshua Dyer's new novel, is a good example. Dyer has grafted a mystery story onto a science fiction yarn set in the not too distant future in which the sheer volume of crime has caused a breakdown in the traditional justice system. The guilt of suspects is considered a given and their traditional right to challenge their accusers is non-existent. Normal trials have been abandoned for the most serious types of crimes, and suspects are simply killed by a hand-picked team of government assassins that works in anonymity -- the hunter cells of the title.
Joshua Dyer: This Cell Won't Hunt!

The system begins to fall apart when members of a mysterious underground begin to interfere with these executions. One man in particular who is slated for assassination engages in a series of hairsbreadth escapes while the members of the hunter cell that is supposed to eliminate him find themselves among the hunted.

The concept seems a bit like Judge Dredd Meets The Watchmen; I couldn't help but think of these comics as I was reading it, and not in a complimentary way: The idea  has promise, although it seems much too derivative for my comfort.

The problem is not the basic concept or even the particulars of the plot; in my opinion, the reason the book stumbles is because Dyer handles all his elements in such a clumsy fashion.

For one thing, he can't seem to work out how he feels about the hunter cells themselves. He gives its members a sort of twisted camaraderie-in-arms, setting them up in situations where they chat and joke together in a diner, complain about bureaucracy and mutter about the boss, just like cubicle jockeys at a Silicon Valley startup.

With one exception --the suspect whose flight triggers the conflict in the book -- their victims are painted as cold-blooded monsters, bereft of a shred of decency. At the same time, it is clear that at least a couple of the government killers are psychopaths themselves, literally capable of killing without remorse at the drop of a hat.

This raises the question: who are we supposed to be rooting for in this story? The good guys or the bad guys? Do we support the hunter cell assassins who represent the forces of law and order or are we appalled at their violence, brutality and extra-judicial executions?

Dyer gives us little guidance in Hunter Cell, which is billed as the first in a series of novels. Perhaps after he has published several more, we will be able to figure out how we feel about contract killers who operate under an official government aegis, but we are given no hint in this first installment. For the most part, they seem to be at least as brutal and bloodthirsty as the bad guys they are assigned to exterminate.

Perhaps it would be easier to accept the moral ambiguity of the hunter cells if Dyer had created a more interesting world for them to inhabit, but that is not the case. His world of at least a half century in the future seems very similar to our own: everybody in the novel seems to smoke, either synthetic cigarettes or the real thing. In addition, they costume themselves like a futuristic version of the Village People -- one is an outlaw biker, one a film noir style private eye, one a female ninja who seems to have been drafted from Mortal Kombat or some other video game. 

There is even a bionic man in the mix, who powers himself around on a set of mechanical legs as if the upper body of Frank Castle, the Punisher, had been Superglued to the lower half of the Tin Man of Oz.

Did I mention that the boss who runs the Hunter Cells seems to do so by piping directly into his agents' brains through some sort of electronic mental telepathy? I guess that's one way to save taxpayer dollars: get rid of cellular telephones.

These minor high tech details -- coupled with a repressive legal system -- seem to be the only things that differentiate the present from the future, however. We still drive around in single-occupant vehicles, no doubt burning fossil fuels. The freeway is still one of the primary modes of transportation. 

Despite this retrograde travel technology, there is no mention of climate change or rising oceans. Everything seems to be pretty much the way it already is -- only more so.

The one thing that Dyer seems to have done to get readers to follow his story is to end the first installment with a cliff-hanger. The question is, will readers be willing to accept the inadequacies of Dyer's future world simply in order to find out what happens next?

This one will not; The new John LeCarre is waiting for me on my bookshelf, and I would rather spend my spare time in the most unconvincing world LeCarre has created than the best one summoned up by Joshua Dyer.

One noose.

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