Villard, 2000, 276 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-375-50326-9
If you’ve been searching for a deliciously original piece of fiction, look no further than Eric Garcia’s Anonymous Rex. Easily one of the freshest novel I’ve read in a while, this is a book that lures readers with a delicious mixture of classical gumshoe prose and an off-beat twist on the usual. Then it keeps them flipping the pages with a sustained rhythm. What more could we ask for?
Part of the appeal of Garcia’s first novel is how, on the surface, protagonist Vincent Rubio is virtually indistinguishable from prototypical down-on-his-luck Private Investigator so beloved of mystery fiction. He used to be a hot shot, but then his partner got killed, he developed a serious substance abuse problem and went on a violent bender. Now he’s broke, his name is mud and no one wants to even talk to him save for the debt collectors —and even those aren’t terribly interested in idle talk. No, nothing revolutionary here so far.
Same thing with the plot, which involves Rubio’s old boss handing over an investigation to our unfortunate protagonist. A sombre arson affair, which our hero has to untangle because no one else wants to do it. The classic elements follow: the witnesses, the diseased, the secret, the wife, the mistress, the affairs, the wealth, the hired thugs and the casual assassination of informers. Even the late slide of the narrative in science-fiction isn’t terribly new when considering that the same shtick’s been attempted by just about every SF writer trying to break in the mystery genre. (See Walter Jon William’s excellent Day of Atonement, etc.)
No, the real find of Anonymous Rex is that it presupposes that our protagonist is… a dinosaur. And so is a sizable proportion of humans living on planet Earth today.
No, not metaphorical we-loved-the-fifties arch-conservative dinosaurs, but the literal stuff of the fossil record: T-Rex, Velociraptor, Brontosaur, Stegosaurus and the rest of the gang. Thanks to elaborate costumes, strong species discipline and the influence of a hilariously inept system of “Councils”, dinosaurs live among us, participate in society, own most of the nightclubs, love the mind-altering effects of aromatic herbs and try their best not to prey on puny humans. (They also presumably enjoy palaeontologist trade publications)
It’s a concept that could be described as unusual (or “zany”, should you be of the less imaginative sort), and which could have very well been amusing for a chapter and a half before starting to recycle its own cleverness. But there’s no reason to worry; Garcia’s dino-universe is well-stocked with interesting new surprises and sufficiently fast-paced to keep us interested even when he’s not busy exploring the social customs and quirks of modern-day sapient lizards.
Among many other fine qualities, Anonymous Rex is generous enough to allow the reader to follow along with the mystery, being neither too obscure or too simple. Rubio is a sympathetic protagonist (he’s a Raptor who could eat you for lunch, sure, but then again he’s meddling with dinos who could eat him for lunch!) The writing is brisk, but also loaded with fine descriptions and dialogue that would make any hard-boiled novelist proud by association. This is a clever novel that’s pure fun from beginning to end; don’t be surprised to find yourself reading it late at night.
The gumshoe mystery has been exploited in fantastic ways for a while, by virtue of well-established genre conventions that are easy to subvert. (even forgetting about the countless genre SF and Fantasy novels with a mystery template, one could easily recall Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music and the original Who Censored Roger Rabbit?) Anonymous Rex is another fine entry in this offbeat vein, a wonderful little book that is well-worth your time and attention. Don’t miss it, especially if you’re looking for something endearingly different.