A swell gets rubbed out. A private dick meets a skirt. They’re in cahoots. Some mooks get the bum’s rush into them. Suppose things aren’t what they seem, that it’s all a two-bit sideshow, that the real party’s going on next door in the big top.
Okay, so I’m no Philip Marlowe, but Ian Tregillis comes close in his most recent novel, Something More Than Night (Tor Books). Tregillis reimagines the hardboiled detective novel as a metaphysical mystery. What’s really going on behind the veil of reality, as people pursue their humdrum lives?
Tregillis begins his novel with a bang, as Bayliss, the detective who speaks in hardboiled cliches, witnesses the death of the angel Gabriel. The heavenly Choir needs a replacement (its membership seems static at 144,000), and Bayliss recruits Molly, an unsuspecting human, via less-than-forthright means. Bayliss becomes Molly’s absentee angelic mentor.
The plot of Something More Than Night involves Bayliss’ and Molly’s investigation into Gabriel’s murder. Who would want one of the most powerful angels dead, and why? And where is the Jericho Trumpet, an artifact of universe-shattering power, now that Gabriel, its protector, is gone? Questions of importance, questions that dwarf the concerns of the hapless “monkeys” (angelic patois for “humans”) bumbling their mortal lives away on earth. Our heroes’ investigations are further complicated when strange phenomena begin popping up in the Pleroma (where the angels live).
Readers will immediately be taken in by Tregillis’ prose. Tregillis does an uncanny job of mimicking (and caricaturing) the cadence and slang of hardboiled detective fiction. Bayliss’ narration is spot-on, whether he’s “lighting a pill” or “scraping his face.” The diner at which Bayliss spends his time, too, is a direct manifestation of our collective impression of 1940s America, complete with a waitress named “Flo.”
The story, too, keeps the reader hooked. After all, who wouldn’t want to know why an angel was murdered? Much of the mystery, though, is a sideshow to Molly’s quest to discover how to be something other than human, a task with which Bayliss is little help. Molly visits a former lover and her older brother, and, eventually, a small Midwestern town where she has a fateful encounter with a library employee. Tregillis makes Molly’s supernatural life recognizably human, no small feat given the subject matter.
That’s not to say that the book is without its weak points. Because Tregillis deals with the cosmos and the supernatural, he sometimes adopts pseudo-scientific prose or lapses into poetic passages about the nature of the heavenly reality that is the book’s setting. I confess that I found these sections tiresome and off-putting; they left me wondering if I had missed something, if Tregillis were speaking over my head. I suspect it’s partly that, and, partly also, that he’s trying to describe something for which the reader has no reference but Tregillis’ imagination.
Ultimately, though, Something More Than Night is a great success. Tregillis slyly uses two seemingly disparate strands, hardboiled detective fiction and angels, to weave a surprisingly coherent whole. The story, both the human and angelic parts, is compelling, and the prose, despite my few quibbles above, is a joy to read. Highly recommended.