Fresh Meat: Three A.M. by Steven John

Three A.M. by Steven John, a dystopian thrillerThree A.M. by Steven John is a dystopian noir thriller (available March 27, 2012).

The troubled hero of Steven John’s new dystopian thriller, Three A.M., is starved for sunshine. Literally starved. Fifteen years earlier, the sunshine disappeared just as Tom Vale’s parents and thousands of others died, horrifically, from a mysterious virus. Replacing the sunshine is a thick, damp fog that suffuses the air, making even a stroll down the street a near impossibility. Tom Vale, his life, and city are like grey ghosts, trapped in time.

Vale is a detective who hires himself out to find the missing  pieces of others’ lives. One night, a stunner named Rebecca tracks him down at his local bar and tries to convince him to find the real killer of a man named Samuel Ayers. She wants the man who has been charged with the crime, Fallon Samson, to be vindicated. The situation, from Rebecca’s tight red dress and long black cigarettes, to the fedora-topped man who seems to be following Vale, feels like pure 20th century noir. Vale is instantly smitten with Rebecca, but he quickly smells a rat, and decides he’s being set up.

It’s astonishing that Vale can smell anything at all. He keeps himself drunk and high on illegal pills to dull the pain and boredom of his daily life. It’s almost painful to read of his constant hangovers, his frequent stumbles, and his fevered groping of buildings and street lamps (orbs) as he inches his way through his murky life. John gives the reader occasional flashbacks to the time “before.” A time that Vale, and everyone around him, is slowly forgetting.

John’s descriptions of Vale’s sad, improbable surroundings put one in a mind of China Miéville. The fogged city feels claustrophobic, its inhabitants solitary. Isolated.

When you can’t see ten feet in front of you, the road could just as well go on forever as it could stop after eleven more steps. Landmarks lost their status as points of reference. North, south, east, and west became concepts, unencumbered by attachment to a floating sun or silent moon.

The city became a series of tunnels. You were never held in one place, and you never seemed to be going anywhere specific. All any of us could do was wander around, never quite trapped but with no prospect for escape. It was as liberating as it was crushing.

There’s a point in the classic film The Wizard of Oz where the film switches from gritty black-and-white to fabulous Technicolor. The switch from Vale’s grey world to the bright light of revelation and realization is equally sharp—it’s as though the book suddenly transforms from a laconic noir tale into a quick-paced thriller. The change in tone is well-timed, coming just when the reader is ready for some serious answers to the questions Vale is asking himself: Why me? Why now?

With those questions answered, Vale becomes the kind of character a reader can really get behind and root for. The ride to Three A.M.’s explosive ending is fast and satisfying.

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Laura Benedict’s latest thriller is Devil’s Oven, a Gothic tale of suspense. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, Noir at the Bar, and a number of other anthologies. She lives in the southernmost wilds of a midwestern state, where she is surrounded by coyotes, bobcats, and many other less picturesque predators. Visit her at to get to know her better.

Read all of Laura Benedict’s posts for Criminal Element.

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