Jonathan Lethem’s 1994 Gun, with Occasional Music is a near-future stand-alone noir novel. It was Lethem’s debut novel.
Drugs are free, television is entirely abstract, animals have been uplifted, and prison has been replaced by involuntary hibernation … but the life of a private dick is much the same as it was back in the days of Black Mask.
Former Inquisitor turned not particularly successful private inquisitor, Conrad Metcalf is offered a case that he can tell is a loser.
Orton Angwine is accused of murdering Dr. Maynard Stanhunt. Orton claims he didn’t do it and would like Metcalf to clear his name. One look at Orton’s karma card assures Metcalf that the authorities are convinced Orton is the guilty party. It’s only a matter of time before Orton experiences the big chill.
Metcalf didn’t get to be an unsuccessful PI by making the smart choices. He begins digging into the Stanhunt murder. Metcalf discovers Stanhunt had a complicated personal life (not helped by the fact that Stanhunt’s drug of choice was an amnesia-inducing drug) and ties to a local gangster.
Metcalf also discovers that nobody except Orton wants Metcalf to take a close look at just who murdered Stanhunt. Framing Orton will make a lot of people happy. Clearing Orton will only please Orton and Metcalf. Digging into the case gets an armed kangaroo on his case. Worse, it annoys the local inquisition.
Too stubborn to abandon the case, Metcalf is determined to keep unravelling the Stanhope murder until one of three things happens: he manages to prove who did it, he earns himself a one-way ticket to tomorrow, or he joins Stanhope in the cold, cold ground.
Gun, With Occasional Music appears to have been inspired by a passing line from Raymond Chandler:
The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.
Thanks to the revolutionary accelerated evolution techniques pioneered by Theodore Twostrand, uplifted kangaroos might well don dinner jackets. After all, they need somewhere to keep their guns.
Lethem sticks close to noir conventions: world-weary detectives who aren’t quite jaded enough to walk away from losing cases, a plethora of attractive dames, each one worse news than the one before, gangsters, crooked cops, and hopeless saps just bright enough to see the doom bearing down on them.
At the same time, Lethem sets his story in a society that while clearly descended from the America we all know is very different in a number of respects: free drugs, talking animals, the erasure of vast swaths of common culture, and the introduction of a social rating system, karma. Exactly who is pulling the strings is unclear but the purpose for most of the changes is clear: keep people increasingly isolated and disoriented, and therefore easy to control. Everyone sticks to their assigned dance moves except Metcalf. For people like Metcalf, there’s karma, easily gamed to make it a trivial matter to dispose of eccentrics.
While the setting and story might at first seem bizarre and random, it’s not absurdist surrealism. There is a case here; Metcalf will eventually work out who gunned down Stanhope and why. Not that the answer will please him or anyone else, but if you want happy answers, you probably should not be reading noir.
The characters are as sympathetic as characters in noir ever are: they’re a collection of doomed losers trapped in a system too big for them to change.
Lethem’s prose is more skilled than one would expect from a debut novel. It’s quite enjoyable.
A final note: one might expect that it would be hard to immerse oneself in a novel filled with such outré characters and settings, but that wasn’t the case for me. I fell right in. I don’t know why I’ve not read more Lethem.