The Alternative Detective, Robert Sheckley

Tor, 1993, 255 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-85381-5

Evoke the name Robert Sheckley to a sufficiently knowledgeable Science-Fiction fan, and (s)he’s most likely to evoke memories of Sheckley’s earlier short stories. During the fifties and sixties, Sheckley was the funny SF writer, producing a string of amusing stories lashing out at American culture through standards SF devices. His fiction would clearly lead to material such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Though his production has diminished considerably in the past few years, any new novel from him -even, as it is, in the mystery genre- should be cause for rejoicing. The first edition of The Alternative Detective having passed unnoticed in 1993, Forge republished the book in 1997 to coincide with the release of the second (and third?) novel in this contemporary mystery series.

If The Alternative Detective is any indication, I’m not surprised that the series hasn’t known wide acclaim. It’s not that it’s a bad book as much as it’s not overly good.

The first surprise of The Alternative Detective is how ordinary it all is, even despite its best intentions. Narrator Hobokan Draconian is an ex-hippie with a network of contacts in Europe (a product of his years in Ibiza), a wife he’s encouraging to shack up with another man and other assorted quirks. But in a genre that relies so much on good narration, Hob Draconian barely registers on the fun scale. The comic eye that Sheckley exhibited in his short stories is nowhere to be found here; instead, we have to settle for some vaguely amusing narration that tries hard but never sparks.

It doesn’t help that there are at least two hallucinatory sequences that don’t really serve any further purpose. A gourmet chef making the rounds in a French prison is good for a chuckle or two, but it’s hard to be overly forgiving when it’s so artificially inserted —and so summarily dispensed with: “You must have been hallucinating!” [P.172]

“Even though Hob ends up in plenty of clichéd private-detective situations, he can always find something funny to say about them, and some ingenious ways to weasel out of them.” breathlessly promises the back-cover blurb, conveniently forgetting to add an exclamation point. (!) Alas, Sheckley’s 1993 state-of-the-art postmodern detective simply takes a lot of naps and often quits cases before they’re through.

It’s not as if there aren’t a few fun touches; funny cab rides with poodles and inexperienced abductors, a reality-obsessed film director; a satisfying description of Ibiza; a sympathetic French cop; a mime friend… but all of those are presented with banality and a decidedly curious lack of impact.

But, maybe worse for the ultimate impact of the book is that Sheckley has dispensed with pop fiction’s Number One Commandment: The Protagonist Shall Do Something. Instead, Draconian is essentially pushed and pulled in various directions until the climax, where again he is brought to a place where all the parties settle their differences without his intervention. Draconian is about as useful as Watson without Holmes, almost as if Sheckley couldn’t be bothered to make an active participant out of the viewpoint narrator. Postmodern? Alternative? How about unsatisfying?

This structural failure, coupled with the pedestrian beat of the narration, suggests that readers would be best advised to spend their valuable entertainment time elsewhere. Why not check out one of Sheckley’s short story collections instead?

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