It took me a half dozen tries in as many years to finish Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music. Hard-boiled detective fiction has never been my thing; it often feels ponderous and overdone. However, Lethem injects humor and sci-fi to create something new, even fun. The action happens through Conrad Metcalf’s eyes and is filtered through drug use and self-assured cynicism. Hired by Dr. Stanhunt to tail his wife, Celeste Stanhunt, Metcalf is a private investigator with a complicated relationship to the Inquisitor’s Office. After Dr. Stanhunt is found dead, the suspected murderer hires Metcalf to clear his name. There’s an obvious cover-up in play which draws Metcalf into increasingly shady deals. The twists and endless questions are common to the genre, but the writing style and compelling setting make it hard to put down.
Metcalf speaks in the same voice as most private eyes:
“Okay,” I said. “My name is Conrad Metcalf, and I’m a private inquisitor. You knew that. You read it somewhere and it gave you hope. Let me tell you now that it’ll cost you seven hundred dollars a day to keep that hope alive. What you’ll get for that money won’t be a new best friend. I’m as much a pain in the ass to the people who pay me as I am to the guys I go up against. Most people walk out of my office knowing things about themselves they didn’t want to know—unless they leave after my first little speech. See the door?” (8)
When confronted with this style of writing, my mind jumps to Tracer Bullet:
When the story pulled me in, I was able to stop snickering at thoughts of Bullet and properly invest. Metcalf’s hyperbolic metaphors are beautiful and frequently involve drugs. In Lethem’s future, everyone snorts personalized blends of “make.” The ingredients are things like Forgettol, Acceptol, Regrettol, or Avoidol—with a background of Addictol to keep the user coming back. A good bit of Metcalf’s detective work is an examination of everyone’s preferred drug and what this says about their personality. Surprisingly, the drugs are a good stand-in for character development and the device is well-used. It adds grit to a world in which every scrap of progress has a dark underpinning.
There are plenty of new ideas in this book (plus some old ones) and they’re spooled out slowly. Most ideas, such as evolved animals or babyheads, are mentioned in the first few chapters, but not developed until necessary. Less-skilled authors rush to define their lingo at its first appearance, but Lethem creates suspense and tension by giving the reader just enough information for them to feel apprehensive without knowing why. The babyheads creeped me out at their first mention, even though the full repercussions aren’t seen for a while.
There are flashes of 1984 in the limitations on the media. Newspapers cannot include writing, so they’re chock full of photos and the radio plays musical news:
The feeling was there before I tuned in the musical interpretation of the news on my bedside radio, but it was the musical news that confirmed it: I was about to work again. I would get a case. Violins were stabbing their way through the choral arrangements in a series of ascending runs that never resolved, never peaked, just faded away and were replaced by more of the same. It was the sound of trouble, something private and tragic; suicide, or murder, rather than a political event. (3)
Rules against asking questions further impede the flow of information. Metcalf’s ability to interview people is limited by his PI license and supervision from the Inquisitor’s Office. This is an ideal setting for conspiracy theories and Metcalf has a new set of hypotheses after each interview. Three-quarters of the way through, the subtly altered theories of the crime piled up in my head and became tangled. There were so many “what-ifs” in play that I wasn’t sure of the actual facts Metcalf had uncovered and which ones had meaning.
Overall: 4.3 It took me a little while to settle into Metcalf’s tone, but once I did, I enjoyed the suspense and twists. This book even kept me up late on a work night. I’ve been working harder to stick to a set “bed time,” so it does mean something when a book derails my best intentions.
Translation: Read it. It also might be a good place to start with Lethem as this is his first book. I love starting with a writer’s first book—there’s every chance that all the others will be even better. If this is the “worst” of Lethem, then I have a stack of good books ahead of me.