February 27, 2013

Book Review: This Honest Man

First, full disclosure:

I read This Honest Man because the writer contacted me through Amazon.com and asked for a review. The writer offered to send me a free Kindle copy but I declined because I could not promise I would find the time to either read the book or review it. Well, I bought my copy for $1.99 or so and let it stew on my Kindle for a few months until I finally found time to read it.

Here is my review:

With the creation of the Sam Dane series Robert J. Sullivan has set for himself some very lofty goals. Both science fiction and hard-boiled private detective fiction have legions of loyal fans with high expectations. I am one of them. I have been reading both genres ever since I set aside Golden Books from my parents and began choosing my own reading material. Hundreds of books by dozens of writers, including some hybrids like the Sam Dane series, have passed through my hands. Despite its flaws, This Honest Man is one of the better modern examples of both science fiction and detective fiction.

Sam Dane is a sane, level-headed character. Although he lacks the spunk of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he has much in common with hundreds of science fiction protagonists who despite only a limited scientific background launch themselves into time travel, space travel, or other endeavors far beyond their local horizons. What Sam Dane lacks in color he makes up for with reasoned logic and a sympathetic understanding of the fictional reality he walks through. As a character he is easy to like. As a detective is more than competent.

The plot starts out with a brief explanation of the planet Gollveig and a species of sentient aliens known as "Bluejays". Gold is the primary export of the planet, Bluejays are the labor force that extracts it, and drug addiction is the method used by the planet's human political class to oppress and control the local population. There are shades here of revisionist history and it's approach to analyzing colonization. An evil corporation commanded by greedy humans first finds out how to get the locals addicted to drugs then uses that addiction as a tool for oppression and control. Marxist themes of class conflict, oppression, and exploitation run throughout the book casting a dreary political shadow over the story and the characters.

That story is reasonably laid out. Sam Dane is hired by a rich widow to look into her husband's death. The police have ruled it as a mugging gone bad, the widow is convinced it was a deliberate murder of some kind but cannot imagine anyone wanting her honest, hardworking husband dead. As the story unfolds there is a brief flame of romance that flares up between Sam Dane and the widow and there are a variety of working class aliens that provide clues and hints. Sam also makes trips to three different worlds in an effort to untangle the spiderweb of lies, deceit, and oppressive capitalists that resulted in an honest man becoming a sacrificial pawn in interstellar politics. The web is unwound, but only after Sam Dane is dragged through a world of super wealth and perversity that results in another brief flame of romance. Unfortunately for poor Sam Dane, neither of his romances end well and by the end of the book he's just as single and lonely as he was at the beginning.

This Honest Man is a pretty good story. The pieces fit together well, the characters are reasonable, and the ending is satisfying. The overriding Marxist themes, however, made the book a chore to get through. Stereotypes about wealth, capitalist oppression, and corrupt politicians left me shaking my head in annoyance every thirty or forty pages. It is ironic that the only honest person in the book appears to be the dead man and even he is shown to have knowingly compromised his principles in order to pay his mortgage and keep his wife draped in expensive clothes.

Yes, Robert Sullivan succeeds in combining science fiction with hard-boiled detective fiction and he does so competently enough to keep a reader turning pages. No, he does not come close to the luminaries of either genre and the main reason he doesn't is his reliance on stereotypes originally derived from Marxist writers who were convinced capitalists are nothing more than modern robber barons.