1979’s The Doppelgänger Gambit, first book in the Brill and Maxwell series, was Lee Killough’s second novel . A futuristic police procedural, it explores the question “how do you get away with murder in a world where the movements of every citizen are tracked?” It’s a cousin to novels like The Demolished Man. Killough isn’t as stylistically innovative as Bester, but her book held my interest. I have a small (and sadly, almost complete) collection of her works.
Janna Brill is a cop in Shawnee County, Kansas, a cop with a choice to make. Her patrol partner, Wim Kiest, plans to emigrate to the stars with his wife; he feels that Brill would be happier if she followed his lead. Abandon the endless quest to protect the sheep from the wolves! Escape the regimented world of 21st century America for the freedom of a new world! Brill isn’t sure what she wants.
After a momentary lapse in vigilance on Kiest’s part leaves him blinded for life, Brill is partnered with the notorious Mahlon “Mama” Maxwell, a talented but eccentric cop whose exploits have left a trail of shattered careers—never his own—in his wake. Despite her misgivings, despite her former partner’s warning about partnering with Maxwell, Brill grudgingly accepts her new partner.
The death of most of those on board the interstellar ramjet Invictus , something that happened out in the deeps of space, is major news, but it would seem irrelevant to the lives of Shawnee cops. It’s actually quite relevant. The starship may have been light-years away when its life support began to fail, but the company that brokered the commissioning and sale of the Invictus to the hundreds of colonists who died … that company is based in Shawnee County. The deaths aren’t a tragic accident. The colonists died because of criminal negligence on the part of someone in the office of starship brokers Jorge Hazlett and Andrew Kellener.
Ten years ago, broker Jorge Hazlett made a bit of pocket money by acquiring a Boeing Starmaster modified 800, then charging his clients for the more expensive Starmaster 1000. Hazlett felt that he was perfectly justified; he wanted that money and after all, people who are too naïve to make sure they are getting what they think they are getting are responsible for their own fleecing. Now he has a problem: how to avoid the death penalty for his role in the deaths of close to 900 people.
Hazlett’s idealistic partner Kellener is both a threat and a possible solution. Kellener is a True Believer in interstellar colonization and left to himself, Kellener will do everything he can to find out why the Invictus failed, even open the brokerage’s books to the investigators. Left to himself, Kellener would put Hazlett on greased rails to conviction and lethal injection. But Kellener isn’t going to be left to himself. Not only was Hazlett foresighted enough to frame Kellener for the fraud, Kellener is going to commit a very conveniently timed suicide. In theory, all citizens (or at least their financial transactions) are tracked in real time, but Hazlett has found a way to be in two places at once.
What Hazlett hasn’t taken into account is the possibility that Maxwell will fixate on Hazlett as a murder suspect and will go to great lengths obtain a conviction. Lengths that may not hew strictly to the letter of the law.
But first, a word about the cover: I used to say that aside from the lack of holsters, cover artist Michael Herring was faithful to the descriptions in the book . Having just reread the book and noting passages such as
iron-gray jumpsuits sidestriped with red from the collar to the ends of the short summer sleeves and underarms to boot tops
not to mention Brill’s interesting choice of on-duty clothing:
sleeveless blue romper and matching hip boots
suggest that, if anything, the cover artist toned things down. The 1970s were an era of tragic fashion choices. Killough imagined a future that was even worse.
I am very impressed that Brill managed to chase and catch a suspect while wearing hip boots, but less impressed by her choice to wear them on duty in the first place.
The difference between a science fiction mystery and a conventional mystery with the occasional flying car or two-way wrist radio tossed in for flavour: a science fiction mystery couldn’t happen without the science fiction elements. In the case of this novel, you could replace the starship with any kind of fraud resulting in death and get much the same plot. What makes it science fiction is the panopticon state. Everyone—almost everyone—is subject to tracking, which forces would-be murderers to subvert the system.
On this reread I picked up on something I missed the first time. The authorities are pretty heavy-handed in their attempts to coerce people into joining the documented society. The undocumented have replaced African-Americans as the victims of choice for bored cops. However, the system has a carrot as well as a stick. The cashless society is *convenient*. The Scib card not only gives access to government services, it provides a reliable ID and cashless banking services .
Not everyone is happy to have their activities documented 24/7. The star colonists flee the panopticon. Others stay but refuse to be tracked. There is a community of the willfully undocumented, people viewed by their government and the citizens around them as eccentric at best and very likely criminals.
Other worldbuilding details: there are starships, not surprising in SF of this vintage (although “It was the Dean Drive. That old skin,” is an amusing twist.) People are still prejudiced, but against undocumenteds, not against POCs. Many formerly stigmatized sexual orientations and marital arrangements are legal and socially acceptable. Everyone who isn’t on a bicycle drives a (hilariously underpowered) hovercraft.
I don’t know why the 1970s had a thing about hovercraft (with or without eels).
Some things haven’t changed. American cops still divide the population into wolves and sheep, with them standing heroically in the middle. Cops are casually predatory towards outcasts. Firearms may have been replaced (for the most part) by percurare darts (which are usually non-fatal … to adults) but suspects still mysteriously fall down and hurt themselves while in custody. Suspects are still framed. Cops are still more loyal to the thin blue line than to the law.
Rereading this, I was struck by the sheer ineptitude of heroic rogue cop Maxwell. He has sex in the back of his own cruiser and locks himself in. He seduces witnesses. He constantly puts himself at needless risk. Perhaps worst of all, he draws an otherwise exemplary cop like Brill into his web of lies. It’s good that the book focuses more on the by-the-book Brill. She isn’t exactly a nice person, but at least she isn’t prone to manufacturing evidence because she has a gut feeling someone is guilty. Even though she does have gut feelings about cases.
Maxwell may be inept, but the villain is a bit of a doofus as well. Hazlett may think of himself as a cunning chessmaster ten moves ahead of everyone else, but in reality, he wings a lot of his scheme. In the venerable police procedural Columbo, Columbo once observed that the reason he was able to reliably catch smarter murderers was because
the writers were on Columbo’s side Columbo was a veteran investigator, while every killer he chased was a novice. Hazlett’s a novice. While certain aspects of his plan had been worked out years in advance, large portions are improvised at the last moment. The result is a trail of clues left for hard-working detectives to follow.
Which makes Maxwell’s cowboy antics look pointless, even stupid. He pulls off a daring gambit at the end of the book, one that is a totally unnecessary flourish. Hazlett has overlooked—flat-out created—damning evidence. The case didn’t need boldness. It needed diligence.
Although this book displays the Zeerust to be expected of a thirty-six-year-old SF novel, I think The Doppelgänger Gambit stands up reasonably well. I may dislike Maxwell, but his flaws are characterization, not idiot plotting. This and other Killough novels are available via Books We Love.
1: Her first book was also published in 1979. It was a busy year.
2: 1985’s Liberty’s World revealed that some of the people on board the Invictus survived. I wish that had been a better book.
3: There is one small error on the cover. Maxwell wears glasses. He has crippling allergies that preclude some standard medical procedures, which is why the force tolerates such offenses against decency as wearing glasses and being bald.
4: Until someone steals the card.