The Night Market by Jonathan Moore is a mind-bending, masterfully plotted near-future thriller that makes your most paranoid fantasies seem like child’s play (available January 16, 2018).
What’s “near-future noir” mean to you? Does it sound like what happens if Philip K. Dick edits a Raymond Chandler novel? If so, you have an idea of what Jonathan Moore’s The Night Market is about.
Hardboiled San Francisco PD Inspector Ross Carver is investigating a possible murder scene featuring a truly ugly-dead (i.e., dissolving) victim when he and his partner, Cleve Jenner, are jumped by moon-suited FBI agents. The Men in Tyvek shoot up the two cops with something that’s supposed to keep them from becoming equally ugly-dead but also knocks them out.
Carver can’t remember what happened when he wakes up in bed two days later feeling like he went six rounds with a Mack truck. Another surprise: Mia Westcott—until now, merely the pretty neighbor-lady—is reading to him. Mia feeds Carver a story that launches him into trying to recover those lost days. Needless to say, Carver, Jenner, and Mia end up diving into the deep end of a vast, subterranean conspiracy that threatens the existence of free will and memory itself.
Carver’s a semi-grizzled veteran detective of a kind we’ve seen before in these kinds of stories—tight with his words, close with his feelings—but he’s not Philip Marlowe in an updated suit. He’s not relentlessly smart-arsed like Marlowe, nor does he go around picking fights. He’s also more plugged into his environment than Marlowe, who was all about people. Marlowe would give us a line or two of pencil sketching for a setting, but Carver notices his surroundings and sometimes makes a kind of poetry out of them.
For instance, he gets a briefing from two patrol officers outside the previously mentioned murder scene and starts grooving on the female officer’s hair:
He was looking at Houston’s wet hair, the way it was reflecting the lights from the top of their cars. He thought of the jeweled masks he’d seen on Nob Hill … Her hair was glittering red and blue. Every night in this city was like a long-running dream. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d stood outside in the daylight.
Mia Westcott is Carver’s Anne Riordan (from Farewell, My Lovely): the pretty, supposedly “good girl” who immerses herself in the case without any obvious good reason for doing so. She’s smart, brave, and clearly up to something. Well, that’s okay—this is noir, and everybody’s supposed to have at least one hidden agenda. But it’s odd that Carver never seems to question at any length why Mia’s being so helpful at no small risk to herself. As it turns out, she does have a good reason for her actions, just not one you might have thought up on your own.
We look over Carver’s shoulder for the entire narrative, so by default, he’s the best-developed character. Except for Mia, the rest of the cast doesn’t get the same level of nuance, and a few days after you finish the book, you’ll probably struggle to remember their names, far less their personalities.
Carver and Jenner push their investigation forward by following the leads with a minimum of magic or coincidence. There are twists and turns enough to satisfy without becoming totally incomprehensible. That the vast, subterranean conspiracy ends up looking like a bowl of spaghetti is just about par for this genre.
I hear you: This all sounds like Chandler. Where’s the PKD part?
The Night Market is set in the “near-future.” In this case, “near-future” could range from last week (if you’re a pessimist) to a year or so from now (if you’re an optimist). There are no flying cars or replicants; the most exotic tech other than the MacGuffin is a hand-held infrared scanner. San Francisco is still starkly divided by class; Hunter’s Point is still a slum; and nobody’s figured out yet what’s going on in Chinatown. Copper thieves get a lot of mentions, but that’s old news in American cities. Yes, the bad guys are able to erase real memories and implant false ones. Then again, vodka’s been doing the former for generations, and we’re doing the latter to mice now (I expect it’ll be available in time for the 2020 elections).
I wrestled with the near-future thing myself in my novel South. It’s hard to pull off—the present moves fast, and for characters who aren’t in society’s upper 10-20%, tomorrow looks a lot like yesterday, just more so. Moore incorporates the future so seamlessly into his world that it’s easy to overlook it. Despite what the promotional material says, there’s no real “science fiction feel” to this novel. Even the MacGuffin (a form of mind control that turns people into unthinking consumers) seems a bit passé in a today where people get trampled in Walmart on Black Friday.
The Night Market is good, sturdy Chandleresque noir with a well-realized plot, a hero who’s reasonably easy to get along with, and enough atmosphere to unspool the movie satisfyingly in your head. If you show up to see the future, keep in mind that Dick’s books were always more about identity, memory, and the nature of reality than they were about tech. Don’t expect ray guns or silver jumpsuits and you’ll have a good time.
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His near-future thriller South is also set in a ripped-from-tomorrow’s-headlines pre-apocalypse, while his international thriller Doha 12 and his DeWitt Agency Files art-crime series are rooted in today’s world, which is nearly as tweaked. His Facebook author page features spies, art crime and archaeology, among other things.