I like seeing writers stretching and trying new things. To date, and in addition to her short fiction which I have not read, Mary Robinette Kowal has published a completed series of five Regency romances with magical elements, an ongoing series of space exploration against the background of an Earth slipping into uninhabitability, a (so far) standalone novel set during the First World War in which spiritualism works, and a slightly spooky novella that’s a medium-future meditation on memory and authenticity. The Spare Man is an interplanetary mystery, set in a 2075 in which thousands of people can take a cruise from Earth to Mars for vacation. Permanent settlements on the moon and Mars are established enough that people can travel from one to another as tourists, but they remain in the background.
All of the action takes place on the International Space Ship Lindgren, an interplanetary vessel that Kowal says in her afterword about the science “is bonkers” and that “no one would actually build. Except a cruise line.” Kowal takes as her main characters a newly married couple: Tesla Crane, traumatized inventor and rich-as-Croesus heiress, and her husband Shal (short for Shalmaneser) Steward, a recently retired detective of some renown. They’ve taken a luxury cabin for their honeymoon cruise, and they’re accompanied by Tesla’s service dog, Gimlet, who’s a Westie.
The Spare Man is an homage to the “Thin Man” movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Kowal works to present an updated version of black-and-white Hollywood glamour in space — banter and cocktails, yes; smoking and a lily-white cast of characters, no. The movies were billed as comedic mysteries, all in good fun with the occasional dead body, and so it is with The Spare Man. I haven’t seen any of the movies, so I can’t speak to how far the parallels go, or how well Kowal translates the style to another era and to interplanetary space. I could tell that she had fun writing this story, and that came across even when her leading couple were terribly inconvenienced, if not in too too much danger. There’s a cocktail recipe at the start of each chapter. Some are traditional, some were made up for the book; some are alcoholic, some are zero-proof; all appear drinkable. And on the Lindgren, practically every hour is cocktail hour, at least for the rich and investigative.
Marital bliss is soon interrupted. First, by a misdelivered steak dinner, which is odd because they are both vegetarian. Second, by pre-planned onboard entertainment, as the two join in a big round of karaoke. Third, there’s a murder, and Shal is ship’s security’s top suspect. Not least because the knife from the steak dinner is found planted quite deeply into the victim. Further, Shal had last been seen running toward the victim’s location and had then dashed off, claiming to have seen someone else running away. There were no witnesses to the brief time that Shal spent in the victim’s presence.
Blending science fiction and mystery presents particular challenges. The technology has to be appropriate to the setting, but it has to be limited enough to make the crime-solving neither trivial nor impossible. One important item of tech in The Spare Man is a spoofer, a device that confounds surveillance. Tesla is both rich and famous, but she is traveling under an assumed name as part of a strategy to have an anonymous and uninterrupted honeymoon. She and Shal use spoofers as part of that strategy. So there is no footage from the ship’s cameras to verify Shal’s account that he was aiding the murder victim. The two of them are not the only passengers using the devices.
The cast of potential suspects soon grows. As Shal has observed from his career as a detective, “Everyone is lying. Everyone is hiding something.” Unfortunately, the list of victims also grows, and the couple are plausibly involved with almost all of them. The dead body that unaccountably turned up in the ship’s recycling systems is less plausibly their handiwork, but with security already looking more than askance at them, a reason could be found. Because one of the strongest possibilities that Tesla and Shal find is that one or more key crew members are in on the murders.
Kowal handles the constraints and the science fiction aspects of the story well. The reversals and the revelations are quite a lot of the fun of the tale, as things get tangled, unravel, and then re-ravel. I suspect that the eventual solution — this isn’t the kind of book where there’s any doubt that there will be one — owes a good bit to “The Thin Man.” Kowal is enjoying the homage far too much to leave it at parallel characters and genre, but the ending doesn’t feel forced to match a model. There were six “Thin Man” movies; maybe this is just the first outing for Tesla, Shal and Gimlet. If so, Kowal will need a lot more cocktail recipes.
The Spare Man is a finalist for this year’s Hugo Awards in the category of Best Novel. I won’t be voting in this year’s awards, but, somewhat unusually, I have already read three of the six finalists for Best Novel. The three lightest on the list, as it happens. At present, I would give my top vote to The Kaiju Preservation Society because it’s the one I enjoyed most, and because I think it would be good for the field for humorous books to win the top honor more often than they do. (I said the same about Space Opera.) Legends & Lattes is the third one I have read. The main contender for my top vote among the finalists I haven’t read yet is Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher, because I generally like her work and because Worldcon needs more of her Hugo acceptance speeches.