Occam's Razor: All other things being equal, the simplest solution is usually the correct one. - William of Occam, 14th Century
Darwin's Blade: All other things being equal, the simplest solution is usually stupidity. - Darwin Minor, 21st Century
Dr. Darwin Minor is a former NTSB accident reconstruction specialist now working privately as the primary investigator for a California-based insurance company. With no living relatives and few friends, he lives simply, using his brilliant intellect to determine the causes of a wide variety of events, the stranger the better.
The book begins with Darwin being called to the scene of a bizarre accident, involving the smoldering remains of an '82 El Camino found on a cliff hundreds of feet above the highway. As his investigation progresses and the search area widens to include skid marks some two miles from the site, the truth emerges and turns out to be an excellent retelling of my very favorite of all urban legends, the JATO-powered rocket car. The author has clearly done his research on the subject, and explains through Darwin the scientific basis of each conclusion, trees dusted with powdered rubber and melted steel from the break pads and drums both vaporizing, intermittent skid marks from the car taking thirty to forty foot hops before becoming airborn, and the eighteen G's the driver was pulling as he left the pavement.
Darwin's day continued quietly after that, with a simple interview with an accident witness at a retirement trailer park. But as he's driving back to his office to file his report, a car pulls up alongside him and shots ring out. Quick instincts and even quicker thinking allow him to lead the potential killers on a wild chase at well over 100 miles per hour, until he manages to force their car off the road and over a cliff. The killer's car narrowly misses a news helicopter on the way down, and Darwin's beautiful example of vehicular homicide becomes the lead story on the evening news.
Darwin is arrested, but soon discovers that he is part of an investigation into the West Coast's largest insurance fraud ring. He was targeted by Russian mob hitmen because he has investigated, and found intentional, several "swoop-and-squat" accidents, where one or more cars pull alongside a target vehicle and squat in position to give the target no place to swerve when another car swoops in and brakes suddenly in front of it. Darwin is too good an investigator for the fraud ring to allow to live. What no one understands, and everyone hopes Darwin can help them figure out, is why there have been a sudden series of swoop-and-squats where the driver of the swoop car has little or no chance of survival. The mystery only deepens when several of the suspects in the fraud ring begin dying under suspicious circumstances....
One of the most beautiful things about Dan Simmons is his versatility as a writer. I first discovered him through his science fiction epics Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Hooked on his writing, I started devouring other books he'd written, and was surprised to find them to be horror novels, and that his horror writing was as good as his sci-fi. I had high hopes when I picked up Darwin's Blade and started reading his work in yet another genre, the mystery-thriller. Once again, Simmons impressed me with his ability to write an excellent story, whatever the genre.
It's immediately apparent from the many accident reconstructions throughout the novel that the author has done his research. Everyhing is backed up by hard science, from the rocket car and bus accident related at the beginning of the book to Darwin's work on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (Simmons has made him the man who first determined that at least four of the astronauts survived the initial explosion and were killed two minutes and forty-fice seconds later when the wreckage slammed into the Atlantic). Yet he avoids the problem common to many writers where the science can turn into dry recitation of facts and figures, and keeps the story and the action flowing.
Simmons also seems to have a fondness for urban legends. As I mentioned above, he opens the book with one of the most famous, and turns several more into accidents being investigated. And the book even ends with an incident bearing a lot of similarity to another one about a chicken cannon used by the FAA. Enough of the original urban myths are preserved to make them indentifiable, but he manages to work them seamlessly into the story as if they are actual events.
Overall, Darwin's Blade confirmed for me that Dan Simmons is much more than a great science fiction author or horror writer; he's a master storyteller. I found myself caring about the characters, and wondering about their motivations. In addition to the plot, throughout the first half of the book, speculation about Darwin's dark and classified past kept be turning the pages, and through the second half I heartily enjoyed watching him embrace that past and put it to good use. I almost managed to talk myself into taking a day off of work to finish the book (and I might have done just that if I'd actually had any leave left).
Mikkelson, Barbara. "Carmageddon." Urban Legends Reference Pages. February 20, 2002. >http://www.snopes.com/autos/dream/jato.asp< (March 14, 2003)
----. "Catapoultry." Urban Legends Reference Pages. July 22, 2001. >http://www.snopes.com/science/cannon.htm< (March 14, 2003)
Simmons, Dan. Darwin's Blade. William Morrow. 2000.