An Everything2 Book review

Carlucci is a book (three collected books, actually) written by the Philip K. Dick Award-winning author Richard Paul Russo. The three volumes that comprise it are:

It clocks in at 624 pages in the September, 2003 paperback edition; the ISBN number of that volume is 0441010547. It was published by Ace Books. So much for the technicals.

The three novels are all set in the same future; a twenty-first century San Francisco. All three follow the same theme, that of the future noir popularized by the film Blade Runner - down to the dysfunctional weather of a damaged Earth, the problems of overpopulation and resource depletion, the increasing polarization of the rich and the poor, and the trials and travails of those few who try to hold the whole thing together. Unlike that movie, however, the technology is much more recognizable, but the people aren't. The action centers around the Venn neighborhood of the Tenderloin, a real place - but in Carlucci's San Francisco, the Tenderloin has put up walls around its perimeter, walls of buildings. To get in, you need to know and have access to an entry point - and those aren't run for free. Inside, there is a 'free zone' of sorts - cops rarely show up there, and (almost) anything goes. It's not safe, but it's not hell - that's the Core, a four-square-block area of ruin at the heart of the Tenderloin that, too, has been walled off. There are probably ways in and out of there, but nobody will talk about them. There are crazies in there; demons, and monsters, and worst of all humans - all of whom, likely, will want to do something unspeakable to you and then something worse to your corpse. Why? They'll probably find it fun.

Into this setting comes Frank Carlucci - no relation to the SecDef. He's an aging cop, one who loves his family, does his job, and has a strong sense of justice that, occasionally, does battle successfully with his equally strong sense of survival. Sound familiar? It should, it's practically a cliche (apart from the fact that Carlucci doesn't seem to have many vices, just virtues). His world is invaded by shadowy corporate enemies, bizarre humans, occasional strange animals, and the wearying problems that have bothered cops every day since time began - sometimes, people kill other people, and somebody has to do something about it.

The first novel actually has a different protagonist - Tanner, an ex-cop who is dragged back into a serial murder case years later. Carlucci shows up in this one as his liaison and controller. The latter two, as their titles indicate, are all about the man himself. While the stories are connected loosely, they are each completely stand-alone novels. I liked all three, with some caveats. I'll try to give you the pluses and minuses, from my point of view, in the hope that it will offer you some help deciding if this is something you might want to read.

Russo's biggest problem with these stories is that they aren't really a particular genre. They aren't classic detective stories, because they violate the cardinal rule - they don't offer the reader enough information to solve the puzzles. Sometimes they don't even offer enough context. They're not completely noir, however, because of Russo's tendency to use extremely sympathetic protagonists. They're not pure sci-fi, because the setting is almost immaterial - while that might make what some call good, literate sci-fi, because the setting isn't the support structure, it makes it hard to grasp what's going on in his head.

One of the reasons this blurring of the lines is hard is because you don't know how hard you're supposed to be working to figure things out, and how much you're supposed to relax and experience the story with the characters. Sometimes there are things that you know that the characters don't, which are so obvious you want to throttle them - and sometimes, there are things they know that you don't, resulting in your following them for twenty or thirty pages in complete confusion before they offer you a clue that they could've given you in four. This is the central reason the pacing seems erratic. It also makes it hard to accept the endings, sometimes; while it's perfectly normal to get a status quo ante ending in a noir tale, it's jarring to find it in a classic detective story. While it's perfectly normal to find the thing you've been trying to figure out rests on some strange piece of technology that hasn't been explained or even introduced when you're reading sci-fi, that sort of behavior jolts a detective or noir tale off its tracks.

On to the good bits. The world is a compellingly painted one - one where you can extrapolate the rest of it in your head almost effortlessly after several hundred pages. Russo throws in an excellent balance of context and surroundings for this purpose; his characters fit his worlds so well that they, at least, almost never do anything out of place, even if it's not something you expected. They fit seamlessly into their surroundings, unless it's important to the story that they fail to do so. They're all quite deep, as well - other than deliberately minor characters, I never felt that I didn't know enough about someone who was important to the tale.

Russo isn't afraid to change his world, sometimes dramatically. He isn't afraid to lose people, introduce people, show you new things, or even reintroduce you to things you thought you'd seen before, just to show you how different it actually looks around the corner. While his plots aren't anything wildly inventive, and in some cases scream of deus ex machina, that's okay - the settings, characters and events support whatever weakness the plot displays.

The first story, Destroying Angel, probably has the weakest 'resolution' at first glance - but you will come to realize that the resolution of the murder case isn't the resolution of the story. The second has a good, oldfashioned we shouldn't do this but we're gonna anyway sort of closure, and the third - well, you'll have to read that one.

They're not cheery reads. Cop stories rarely are. On the other hand, they'll make you think, a tad, and there are bright moments throughout them - just like life.

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