Review: The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal
a review by Rich Horton
Tesla Crane and her husband Shalmaneser Steward are taking their honeymoon on an interplanetary cruise liner to Mars. Tesla is a brilliant engineer/inventor, as was her father, so she's very rich. Shal is a former private investigator, now retired. They have a dog, Gimlet. So far, so Nick and Nora! There are, of course, some differences, besides the whole "in the future, traveling to Mars" stuff. Tesla had a major accident testing a new PAMU system, and she still has significant physical challenges. And mental challenges -- she has PTSD, fairly easily triggered, and carries a load of guilt about the others (her employees) who died in the accident. And Gimlet is her service dog. (The cruise liner, by the way, is named the Lindgren, which I suspect is a nod to Kjell Lindgren, an astronaut and SF fan who has twice been a Special Guest of a Worldcon, in Spokane and in Helsinki. For Sasquan (in Spokane) he videoconferenced in to present the Best Novel Hugo from the International Space Station. (I was in the audience and in fact I also received a Hugo at that con!))
Tesla and Shal are just getting started on their honeymoon when the first murder happens -- and Shal, trying to help, is found with the victim, bleeding out, in his arms. As a result, he is arrested, and Tesla is restricted from seeing him, and generally obstructed in a number of ways. Luckily, she has lots of money, and a super high-powered lawyer (who is, however, several light minutes away and getting farther!)
The story follows a large cast of suspects, of varying degrees of reader sympathy: the victim's husband, a shady seeming doctor, a man with his robotics loving trans child, a magician performing for the cruise line, a couple who seem nice but maybe -- just maybe -- are having marital troubles, etc. etc. In the time-honored tradition of mysteries, there are a couple further mysterious deaths, including the one extra person ("spare man") who seems to be missing but can't be identified.
Tesla and Shal, sometimes against their better instincts, not to mention their lawyer's advice, do what they can to investigate the crime(s). In this they are helped sometimes by a long-suffering but professional security person, and impeded by a seemingly moronic security chief and by his only too obedient sidekick. We get a neat tour of the Lindgren, with its three gravity levels (Earth, Mars, Luna), and its typical variety of cruise entertainments, not to mention of course the bars with the bartenders of varying competence. And in the end the criminal is revealed -- as often, perhaps this is a bit of an anti-climax, and a bit over-complicated as to motive and means. But that's not the point of these novels.
It's a fun read, really. Not exactly as light-hearted as the Thin Man movies -- the novel seriously treats subjects like disability, and scientific aspects like Tesla's job and the (quite crazy) spaceship design. The characters are a varied and interesting bunch, if most of them (not surprisingly) are only lightly sketched. Tesla and Shal are a sweet and smart couple, Gimlet is adorable, Tesla's lawyer Fantine is a scream, and the drinks list is sublime. This is a really nice futuristic entertainment.