James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Murder in the White House!

State Machine  (Rachel Peng, volume 3)

By K B Spangler 

16 Jun, 2015

Miscellaneous Reviews


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

2015’s State Machine is the third book in the Rachel Peng series [1]. The protagonist, Peng, is among the survivors of an ill-conceived experiment in neural prosthesis. Having struggled back to sanity, the surviving cyborgs have banded together under the banner of the Office of Adaptive and Complementary Enhancement Technologies for mutual support and protection. They offer their services to the government in an attempt to convince society in general [2] that the cyborgs are more useful than dangerous. 

Rachel Peng’s personal contribution to the cause is serving as OACET’s liaison to the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police. She uses her unique array of senses to crack baffling cases. Her latest case, a murder, is notable because it took place in a heavily secured section of the White House and because the only apparent motive for the murder is theft. But theft of what? 

(light spoilers)

The murder occurred in a storeroom holding low-value gifts from foreign governments. How the killer got in is no mystery; she used an identity stolen from another murder victim, a victim with an invitation to a White House event, She convinced her second victim, a noted Lothario, to show her the storeroom — but what she took, if she even took anything, is unclear. 

The killer was cool, professional, and quick to improvise; as soon as she was forced to kill the Lothario (he Saw Too Much), she reshuffled the stored gifts. Plan A seems to have been that the theft would go unnoticed. The murder made that impossible, so she obscured the evidence. The government filing system is now useless; all the gifts will have to be recatalogued in order to pinpoint the theft. Having killed, stolen, and reshuffled, the killer coolly returned upstairs to the social event. 

She is far from home free. There are not that many people with her skill set; she is for various valid reasons working with a bumbling confederate whose ineptitude opens up an entirely different avenue of investigation … and Peng has senses no professional thief has ever encountered. 

With Peng on the case, it doesn’t take long to work out what the missing item was: a fragment of an archaeological treasure whose significance was overlooked when it was gifted to the US. It doesn’t even take that long to capture the murderous art thief, Jenna Noura. It becomes clear that who dun it” is the wrong question. The important questions are who hired Jenna Noura and why did he want a fragment of the Antikythera mechanism?”

Noura’s not talking; all too soon, she is out of the game and unable to talk. However, silencing Noura can’t prevent the cyborgs from working out who the player on the other side is: their old sparring partner, billionaire Senator Hanlon, the man responsible for creating the cyborgs and a man eager to see that embarrassment from his past vanish. 

And for all their abilities and cunning, Peng and her fellow cyborgs at OACET cannot figure out what Hanlon’s new scheme could be. 


I always enjoy Spangler’s books but I found this one a little frustrating, both because it’s a bit talkier than I would have liked and because a significant mystery is left to be solved in a subsequent book. This is science fiction, but it’s also a police procedural (of an odd type, which I will get back to). I really don’t want to encourage mystery writers to start pulling a Jordan or a Martin with mysteries spun out over several books. On-going conflicts, Big Bad of the season, sure. Just not mystery cliffhangers. 

Peng would prefer that she and her fellow cyborgs not be seen as rampaging monsters who consider themselves above the law, which is why there’s no cathartic scene in which she dismembers Hanlon. Despite her desire to stay within the letter of the law, she is somewhat hampered by the fact that her abilities can make her a walking violation of the fourth and fifth amendments and also by the fact that the other side doesn’t feel the need to play by the rules. For the most part, she does her best to play fair and, rather unusually for an American procedural, is pretty crap at convincing herself the ends justify the means. It’s not that if pushed hard enough, she won’t step over the line she’s drawn in her head, but when she does, it bothers her. 

I can assure the reader that despite disclaimer in the previous paragraph, there are thrilling chase scenes (foot and car), gun play, and gritty confrontations as well as the more cerebral elements. Be warned that at least one of the violent deaths is protracted and unpleasant. Why, it’s almost as though shooting someone in the face isn’t super-cool action fun, but a horrifyingly violent act resulting in tremendous pain and fatal blood loss. I don’t have a problem with that, but others might. 

State Machine can be purchased here.

1: It is set in the same universe as author K. B. Spangler’s A Girl and Her Fed webcomic.

2: Well, the US. Given what the cyborgs can do and their close ties with the US security apparatus, a foreign government might very well believe itself to justified in dropping a cruise missile on the OACET HQ.