Smörgåsbord: Harper’s Force of Nature (Australia), Morgan’s Altered Carbon (UK/US) and Kushner’s The Mars Room (US)

Hooray! Getting back into the reading groove with these lovelies!

Jane Harper, Force of Nature, Abacus 2017

First line: Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things.

Jane Harper has been the breakout star of Australian crime fiction in the last couple of years. Her debut, The Dry, completely blew me away (review here), and this follow up, the second in the ‘Aaron Falk’ series, was an immensely satisfying read.

Five women from the Melbourne company BaileyTennants set off on a corporate team-building exercise – a three-day hike in the remote Giralang Ranges. Only four return. The fifth, Alice Russell, is missing – a particular concern to Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, as she’s a whistleblower in his current case. Together with colleague Carmen Cooper, he heads to Giralang to figure out how much the other women – from the company chairwoman to a lowly data-inputting assistant – know about Alice and her disappearance.

The scenario outlined above wouldn’t normally pull me in as a reader, but I was so impressed by The Dry that I wanted to read more of Harper’s work. And I’m glad I did. In Force of Nature she builds a gripping narrative using alternating timelines – the investigation in the present, and the experiences of the women on the hike in the past. The two strands are skilfully interwoven, and the characters and power dynamics within the group are extremely well drawn. If you haven’t yet found your way to Harper’s work, then you have a treat in store – she really is an extremely good, intelligent writer, and I love the sense of place her novels evoke.

Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon, Orion 2008 (2002)

First line: Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah’s cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting.

If Force of Nature is immensely satisfying, then Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is utterly mind-bending. It can perhaps most accurately be described as a neo-noir sci-fi detective novel – or as a gritty PI tale set in a dystopian but impressively believable future.

Four hundred years from now, mankind lives in colonies scattered on a number of far-flung planets. Technology has all but eliminated death: human consciousness is now stored in ‘stacks’ (implants at the base of the skull), which can be transferred into new bodies or ‘sleeves’ when necessary. So if you’re fatally shot, as former elite soldier and convict Takeshi Kovacs is at the start of this novel, it’s the beginning rather than the end. Kovacs wakes up on Earth, a long way from his home planet, in a new body – originally belonging to a nicotine-addicted ex-policeman – and discovers he’s been brought there by a billionaire to investigate a murder, a job he can’t afford to refuse.

And that’s just the starting point. The entire novel is brimming with great ideas and SF scenarios: convicts placed into storage during prison sentences who are met by their grandchildren on their release; husbands who open the front door to find that the stranger before them is actually their wife in a new ‘sleeve’; the mega-rich who live for hundreds of years and keep multiple new-and-improved bodies in storage…

The crime element is often a bit overshadowed in SF crime novels, but Altered Carbon can rightly claim to be a PI novel – its investigation is strongly foregrounded throughout. Kovacs is a flawed but likeable figure, whose wise-cracking, tough-guy persona will appeal to fans of traditional noir. But be warned, this is a hard-hitting work that contains truly eye-watering levels of violence. Think Tarantino in space on speed.

All in all, then, an amazing debut novel – one which has been followed by two further novels, a graphic novel and a Netflix adaptation (though the latter apparently plays fairly freely with its source).

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Vintage 2018)

First line: Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays.

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes after. Its central character, Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we are shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to pay her way and to provide for her son Jackson.

This is a novel about the circumstances that shape an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as a substandard justice system) shape her destiny. It’s also the story of a prison community – including Romy’s fellow inmates Laura Lipp, Conan, Betty, Sammy and Teardrop – and is extremely moving, although moments of lightness and humour are allowed to peep through. A searing novel, beautifully written, and one you won’t easily forget.

The Mars Room was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.