Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sawyer's Martian detective spoof delightful, humdinger of a read

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Alex Lomax is a hard-boiled, borderline shady private eye, living among corpses, gangsters, thugs, crooks and women that any guy would be a fool to trust.

And Lomax acts foolishly quite often.

That he sees himself as Humphrey Bogart would be obvious, even if he didn't adorn his place with Bogie movie posters.

Oh, and by the way, since this mystery novel is written by Canada's world-class science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, Lomax lives on Mars.

In Sawyer's unspecified future, Mars is essentially a domed city named New Klondike, from which prospectors venture out trying to make their fortune in rare Martian fossils, the remains of weird non-sentient critters that died out while Earth was still working up to the first appearance of dinosaurs.

"I walked into the centre along Ninth Avenue," Lomax says in the novel's first-person narration, "passing filthy prospectors, the aftermath of a fight in which some schmuck in a pool of blood was being tended to by your proverbial hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold, and a broken-down robot trying to make its way along with only three of its four legs working properly."

Complicating matters is the presence of "transfers," people with enough money to download their consciousness into virtually immortal and indestructible artificial bodies.

Most transfers choose bodies that look like their younger selves, but some don't want anyone to know who's inside that shell.

Lomax, it goes without saying, is down on his luck and desperate for any case he can find. So when a beautiful woman of dubious motives shows up seeking a private eye to find her missing husband, before the reader can take time to visualize a 1940s dick sleuthing the scummier side of a dumpy town on another planet, the game is afoot.

Red Planet Blues, Sawyer's 23rd novel, is a total hoot. It's funny more than once in a while, it's a terrific page-turner, it moves faster than a rocket heading to Jupiter's moons. Try to keep up with the double, triple and quadruple crosses.

Or try keeping count of how many times Lomax places himself in peril while facing a gun and a depleted air supply on the Martian surface.

Almost every character in Dashiell Hammett's classic detective 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon can be found in this delightful spoof, though it's not a template. There are parts of Bogie's The Big Sleep and Treasure of the Sierra Madre here and parallels to Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels.

"I'm not just anyone," Lomax tells his sergeant at one point. "I'm the guy who picks up the pieces after you clowns bungle things."

Red Planet Blues might seem even too familiar to regular Sawyer fans. The first few chapters were previously published as Sawyer's 2005 novella Identity Theft, and if you've read that, the segue into the rest of this book might seem a little awkward at first.

He explored something similar to transfers in 2007's Rollback, and he previously penned a science-fiction mystery in 2002, Illegal Alien, which was akin to a Scott Turow-calibre trial story about an alien charged with the murder of an Earthling.

Regardless of how familiar some elements may be, Red Planet Blues is a humdinger of a read.

Nick Martin is a Free Press reporter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 J9

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