I have to admit that some times I hate reviewing first-time novels. Not those first-time novels where you can't believe this was a first foray into novel writing and not the product of an experienced author using a pen name. And not those first-time novels where you can't believe no one--an editor, a reading group, a spouse--suggested that perhaps the book wasn't quite ready for prime time (or late, late night even). And certainly not those first novels that are so painfully, obviously trying to cash in on an ongoing publishing trend. No, I hate reviewing those first time novels where the author is utterly sincere and earnest, has a good idea, has created some interesting characters, and shows some real promise for the future, but just isn't quite there yet. When every criticism feels like an undeserved punch in the gut to some nice-seeming stranger you just passed on the street. So apologies ahead of time to Patrick Swenson, who seems like a nice guy, has come up with a nice idea, but hasn't quite nailed the execution yet. Though his debut novel, The Ultra Thin Man, shows enough that I'd like to see what comes next from Swenson's pen (OK, probably his laptop).
The Ultra Thin Man is a noir-ish science fiction story set in a future where humanity, thanks to the gift of interstellar jump technology from an alien race (the Memors), has colonized a group of planets currently held together in a federation called the Union. Not everyone is enamored of such a tightly-knit organization, though, and so a terrorist group--The Movement--has turned to violence in an attempt to provoke the eight planets into declaring independence. The leader of The Movement, Terl Plenko, is a Helk, the only other alien race humans have encountered, and as the novel opens, Plenko is being hunted by the Union's security organization--the NIO.
The novel alternates chapters between Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos, two former PI partners who have sub-contracted to the NIO. Crowell's chapters are in first-person, Brindos' in third person, with each having his own set of adventures on different planets. Their manhunt soon leads them into a much larger, much more complicated, and much more dangerous world than either had expected. To say any more about the plot would ruin the twists and turns.
To begin with the positives, I'm a sucker for noir, and so when I get a title with the words "Thin Man," which of course calls up the wonderful William Powell and Myrna Loy, and that begins with a first-person account by a private investigator telling me, "They said Dorie Senall deliberately killed herself, but I doubted the truth of that," well, I'm ready to fall like a dyed blonde on high heels cradling her fourth martini. So in my mind, Swenson has chosen well in his form.
I also am a fan of multiple POVs, and I enjoyed the added variety of having one POV in first-person and one in third. Swenson did a good job as well in distinguishing the two major voices, as well as giving each half of the story a different tone and vibe. Somewhat ironically, the third-person Brindos section was I thought the most intimate, more focused on character, while the first-person Crowell section was more removed and more action oriented. A nice touch of the unexpected.
The thematic focus (one of them at least) on identity was also appreciated, lending the novel a sense of depth beyond the action elements, though again, I can't say much more so as not to spoil the plot. Dialogue overall was mixed, but at times Swenson shows a real knack for it, particularly in the interaction between Crowell and a Helk security agent. Their relationship and times together were actually my favorite parts of the novel.
Finally, I want to give credit to Swenson for at least one aspect of his ending, which displays a courage that I wish more authors showed. I wish I could say more, but giving away an event at the close of a mystery is rarely a good move in a review.
As for the negatives, they tend to be those one might expect from a debut novel. Some clumsiness and clunkiness in the prose and the worldbuilding, though these issues appear more frequently at the start and though they never wholly disappear, they do diminish past the first few chapters. There are some head-scratching lines and moments, as when Crowell is pretty sure an intruder, potential attacker, is about to enter the room but he chooses several other actions before reaching for his weapon or when a scene of utter devastation doesn't seem to accord with the casualties given, or where it was hard to buy Crowell not recognizing someone. There were enough of these to become noticeable and thus become not merely a distraction, but a detraction as well. Outside of Brindos, the characterization was relatively non-descript, a word I'd use as well for the plotting and the style. None of these were bad--characters were believable and likable enough, the style serviceable, the plot moved along--but then, none of them stood out as particularly striking or original. The plot for instance makes use of some well-trod tropes that I would have liked to see them used more freshly.
In the end, The Ultra Thin Man, was disappointing, but never to the point where I considered not finishing it. And the novel shows enough promise, enough flashes of wit and originality and facility with dialogue that one has to hope Swenson has a second novel in him. In fact, The Ultra Thin Man ends in a way that allows for further adventures with these characters and I would be interested to see how further honing of his craft might improve a second engagement in this world.