by Jonathan Lethem



262pp/$12.95/June 1994

Gun, With Occasional Music

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Much has been written about Jonathan Lethem since his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music appeared. He has been named as one of the novelist to watch in the next century. However, with four novels and a short story collection under his belt, his debut remains his strongest novel to date.

Conrad Metcalf is a private inquisitor who lives in a futuristic Oakland which is more reminiscent of the seedy gumshoe novel than it is of sparkling towers. This dichotomy is intentional as Lethem mixes the tropes of cyberpunk with the novels of Raymond Chandler. Even the minor characters' names seem as if they could have been lifted from The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely. However, the PI side of Gun, With Occasional Music also resonates with Dashiell Hammett and the films made from his works. The reader can imagine Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre or Mary Astor playing their appropriate roles.

Metcalf can only remain out of suspended animation as long as he manages to retain enough karma points, which can be lost for, among other things, rudeness. Unfortunately, in a society in which asking questions is considered taboo, a private inquisitor is going to find his supply of karma quickly depleted. Metcalf finds he needs to ask more questions than he can afford from he is hired by Maynard Stanhurt to tail his wife, Celeste Stanhurt shortly before Maynard is killed.
Metcalf's inquisition leads him to be questioned by public inquisitors, Barry Greenleaf (Sydney Greenstreet?) and a genetically enhanced enforcer names Joey Castle, who happens to be a kangaroo. In fact, Lethem explains that the character of Joey Castle was inspired by a Raymond Chandler quote.

Gun, With Occasional Music is replete with witty repartee and wry humor as Metcalf operates in a world which is not particularly hospitable. Many of the terrors of this world which Metcalf encounters are glossed over, sparkling ideas which, one would hope, Lethem will return to in future writing. Nevertheless, they are placed where they are to provide a specific atmosphere and Lethem manages to achieve the proper tone throughout this novel.

Lethem has created an highly successful blend of the dark future of cyberpunk and Philip K. Dick and the noir thirties of Hammett and Chandler resulting in a novel which will appeal to science fiction fans and mystery fans.  Gun, with Occasional Music is a stellar debut novel with cross-genre appeal which could well introduce mystery fans to sf and vice versa.

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