Nocturne for a Dangerous Man, Marc Matz

Tor, 1999, 470 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57537-7

As I accumulate my SF reading and develop more sophisticated tastes in my entertainment choices, I have inevitably progressed past certain things. Star Trek adventures now simply bore me, given that they exhibit none of the intellectual inventiveness, mental challenges and new characters that, to me, have come to represent the best that science-fiction has to offer. The same can be said about scores of run-of-the-mill action/adventure novels, where the thriller mechanics aren’t really enhanced by the science-fiction setting. Especially when it’s “average” SF and/or the thriller plot is more boring than thrilling.

Don’t read in the above read what I didn’t say: I can always appreciate a good thriller or an unassuming action/adventure SF novel when they have something special, but it takes more than just labeling a tired chase scenario with lasers and robots to make it interesting.

In this perspective, Nocturne for a Dangerous Man is a half-success. On one hand it’s a complex thriller with decent SF elements. On the other, it’s an overlong bore with nothing really new to say and a paternalistic tone in which to say it.

It’s typical of the book’s murky impression that the plot can be stated in several fashions. At first glance, it would appear to be a straightforward story where an ultra-competent mercenary protagonist is hired to rescue a damsel in distress. On closer inspection, it’s far more complex than that: The protagonist has to chase down several leads, complete sub-objectives in order to further his mission and contact dozens of past acquaintances to get more information. But look closer, and you’ll find that the kinks of the narrative threads untie themselves to form a single, continuous simple story: That of an ultra-competent mercenary protagonist hired to rescue a damsel in distress.

In other words, this is a book that ends exactly where you’d think at first, which is to say pretty much like the (great) cover illustration, in which a rugged-looking man hangs on to a helicopter rope ladder with one hand and a beautiful woman in the other while in the background, a cruise ship explodes. For readers, the journey is the goal, not the ending.

All fine and well; like most Hollywood movie, it’s not uncommon to enjoy a routine plot executed supremely well. But Nocturne for a Dangerous Man isn’t so successful.

Many difficulties stem from the protagonist’s narration. Just like in most of Robert Heinlein’s best novels, Nocturne for a Dangerous Man is narrated by an astonishingly competent renaissance man, a protagonist trained in the military arts, fluent in dozens of languages, superb cook, expert lover and most probably multiple-PhD-holder for all we know. Needless to say, such characters quickly approach self-parody, a trap that Matz doesn’t entirely avoid here. Just like Robert Heinlein’s worst novels, however, the narration quickly becomes paternalistic, almost as if anyone not knowing a dozen languages, half a dozen fighting techniques, culinary and amorous arts can’t possibly be adequate enough to read the book. This snobbishness tends to grate and grate greatly.

Adding to the problem is a structure that drags on, and on, and on… The best hard-boiled novels (which Nocturne for a Dangerous Man is obviously trying to imitate) were those which didn’t multiply endless empty complications. (Have you ever read about a glib private eye?) But Matz, for whatever reasons, seems to delight in demonstrating his intelligence to us, which comes out as a net waste of time.

Too bad, because with some drastic editing, Nocturne for a Dangerous Man would have been a fast-paced, entertaining read. Matz shows a good grasp of SF world-building and the details -plentiful as they are- remain interesting. Despite everything, I’ll take a look at his next novel.

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