by Adam ChristopherA lot of superheroes had their origins at the same time noir cinema was at the height of its popularity, so it's surprising we haven't seen more mash-ups of these two genres before. Adam Christopher's mist-shrouded Empire State is an alternate version of New York in the thirties, with Prohibition in force. There are two superheroes whose clashes have dominated the news: the Skyguard and the Science Pirate. However following one cataclysmic fight their epic battles are in the past, and the people of the city have had to get on with their lives without superpowered help.
The are echoes of Orwell's 1984 and "We have always been at war with Eurasia" in the Empire State's "Wartime". They've been fighting the Enemy as long as anyone can remember, and shortages are a constant daily reality. Private detective Rad Bradley has learned not to question the state of affairs too closely, because bad things happen to those who do. Men sent out to fight in ironclad vessels have never been known to return. People are nervous. No-one wants to get into trouble for being seen with the wrong political faction, and they don't know what the unseen Enemy is capable of doing to them, or even where they are in relation to the city.
Rad is going through an expensive divorce so he's inclined to take any work, no matter how dodgy. But when he begins to investigate the murder of a woman down a dark alley alarm bells start ringing. With the help of his journalist friend Kane he begins to uncover a conspiracy that goes to the heart of the Empire State itself. It's a strange place, bound by strict laws and permeated with a sense of distrust. Nobody ever leaves the Empire State or talks about anywhere else, and planning to explore its boundaries is considered more or less heretical. What's more, people are affected by a collective amnesia, as though they've all been hypnotised, and they tend to look the other way whenever something comes along that seriously challenges their world view.
Some of the story is told from the point of view of Rex, a thug who wanders into trouble when he takes a stroll down the wrong street. Rex looks like Rad, but he has none of Rad's empathy. He's like Rad's distorted mirror image, which is a theme that crops up throughout the novel. So there's a tension building about how their stories could be connected, but Rad has a host of other mysteries to solve as well. Such as, who are the bully boys in gas masks, and what is on the quarantined ship that has returned from the front? He's also getting warnings from a man calling himself Nimrod, and from the Skyguard who everyone believes is dead, and Rad doesn't know who he can trust. Amidst rampaging robot men and great airships poised to attack, Rad learns of an even greater threat to the Empire State.
It's a complex and intriguing novel: offering more puzzles every time the answers to each mystery are unlocked. Although Rad is the main character the story jumps from various other viewpoints as well, but this is handled well in that it isn't allowed to give the game away on important questions. Mid-way through the book I wasn't sure what it was all about, but by the end everything makes sense.
What I liked best about this story was the setting: there's a beautiful clash of the genteel and the brutal. There's Captain Carson in his mansion with his manservant, with his old world charm and his sherry, and there's the curiously low-key subversive known as the Pastor of Lost Souls, who mostly seems to do coffee mornings. And in the next breath there's murder, and adventure, and the rain-spattered world of the hard-bitten private eye shuffling through speakeasys, sifting clues, fielding betrayals and trying to save the city.
I'm not usually drawn to noir, so I didn't expect to like Empire State as much as I do. Of course noir is only one of its elements, and I think the story works because it brings together inventive worldbuilding, a dash of humour, vivid characters and a really meaty plot into one sinister ticking package.
30th December 2011
Review © Ros Jackson