Carlucci - Richard Paul Russo

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Richard Paul Russo
Ace Publishers
ISBN: 0441010547 (Amazon link)

Over the summer I read Russo's Ship of Fools , but although I liked his writing, his plotting annoyed me quite a bit. Several people recommended his earlier Carlucci novels as perhaps being more to my taste. They were right.

Carlucci is an omnibus edition of Destroying Angel, Carlucci's Edge, and Carlucci's Heart. Together they form a loose series, with a shared world and characters, but they could be read standalone if you find the older single volume editions. The titular Carlucci is your stereotypical good guy cop, an Italian-American detective, first a captain, then a lieutenant, he tries to do the right thing for himself and his family, in the sort of near-future San Francisco beloved of cyberpunk futures. The city has been remodelled along lines reminiscent of Dante's hell, with much of the action taking place in the middle circle of the crowded, energetic, lawless Tenderloin, a city within a city, complete with Asian, Euro and Afram quarters, each seething with neon and organised crime. Within the Tenderloin lies the heart of darkness known as The Core, a dangerous, chaotic place shunned by outsiders. Quite how this situation came about is never explained, but frankly, as a colourful and atmospheric background for the action, it'll do nicely. Presiding over all is the remote but influential New Hong Kong, an orbital habit owned by a mega-corp and a law unto itself.

As a exercise in world building, Carlucci is clearly borrowing from several familiar sources, with Bladerunner and Gibson's Sprawl novels being the obvious references. Still, Russo manages to populate the city with enough curious colour and incident to revitalise his borrowed backdrop. However, strip away the neon and body-modifications from cyberpunk's favourite setting, and what you're left with is the urban jungle familiar from an older generation of stories. Carlucci is the obviously a Chandleresque hero resigned to walking down these mean streets.

Or rather, he's one of the Chandleresque heroes. In the first novel of the three, Destroying Angel, Carlucci only features as a secondary character, the Good Cop our hero respects and turns to for help. The lead is instead played by Tanner, a retired cop, buddied up with Paul, a young doctor working in a inner city ER. Unfortunately, this is the weakest of three novels, and quick summary of Tanner's character should reveal the problem - Tanner is an ex-cop, retired from the force after the traumatic killing of his partner, and now that his girlfriend has left him he lives a moody, lonely and withdrawn life, but gets drawn back into police work when a serial killer, the Chain Killer, resurfaces several years after his first killing spree. Tanner worked on the case originally, and only he has access to some vital information about the killer from an old foe - but will it be soon enough to help him save Sookie, a teenage street kid from the Tenderloin who reminds Tanner of tragic figures from his past?

I'm not sure if Destroying Angel is Russo's first novel - the writing is good, so maybe not - but I think he's over-egged the pudding. Cliche is piled upon cliche, which could be tolerable stylistically given the extraordinary vividness of the setting, but the plot doesn't stand up particularly well. Stripped of the moody characters, and brash setting, the plot stands revealed as a very simple serial killer case from any second rate SF TV show, with no twists and nothing much of interest frankly. Russo does up the ante emotionally with a very bleak ending, but it's too little, too late. Ultimately, the atmosphere is interesting, and the characterisation promising, but I can't really say this is a particularly good novel due to that disappointing plot.

Luckily things improve a lot in the next volume. Carlucci's Edge sees Carlucci take centre stage to investigate two murders. Officially, he's looking into the death of the Mayor's nephew - known to be corrupt but involved with players who cannot be easily accused - who has been found obviously executed in his hi-tech apartment. Unofficially, Carlucci has also been approached by Paula Asgard, an aging rock-chick who sings with a slash'n'burn band. Her boyfriend, Chick Roberts, a small time crook and drug dealer, has been murdered, but the police seem to have hastily buried Chick's case. One of the characters from Destroying Angel, Mixer, a friend of Sookie's with a penchant for body modifications, recommended Carlucci as the solution to Paula's problems. Mixer however has developed his own problems - on shady business in his Tenderloin home, he gets himself into a bit of trouble with the Saints - a group of female religious nut-cases fond of re-enacting famous martyrdoms in their quest for the ideal man. Naturally, they haven't found their ideal man yet, or rather, no-one has passed the test without being damaged beyond repair. As this is a mystery novel, Carlucci soon finds that these unrelated happenings seem to be connected, and the link tying them all together is the big player in the sky, New Hong Kong, home of black medical projects. Carlucci's Edge is a much more obviously a cyberpunk novel, but is much more successful in blending that genre with the police procedural than Destroying Angel. The plotting is satisfying, but really, the most enjoyable things here are the strong authorial voice, the building of vivid intercharacter relationships, and the role played by the City itself. I'd recommend Carlucci's Edge.

The final volume, Carlucci's Heart, is the most mature of the three, and probably the least SFnal, focusing mainly on the relationship between Carlucci and his family. His relationship with his wife has been strained, but it's his estranged older daughter Caroline who plays the major role. She left home when she was diagnosed with a long-term terminal illness, and is now living with her boyfriend Tito, himself dying of AIDs, in a death house in the Tenderloin. Caroline comes to her dad for help when Tito goes missing, having possibly become involved with a group called Cancer Cell.

Carlucci and his ulcer don't need more problems just now; he's working on another sensitive case involving the murder of a young woman - not only is she the daughter of the owner of Mishima Investments, better known as the owner of New Hong Kong, but she is sporting a rather natty 'CC' carved into her forehead. Meanwhile, an inner city doctor called Cage has problems of his own - with his friend Nikki, with whom he's in unrequited love, Cage has been involved with purchasing black market drugs for their little charity clinic, but their last run involved some ... unpleasantness ... with their Cancer Cell contact. What has Cage worried is that their contact looked sick, and blood was involved. Things really start to fall apart when for Nikki and Cage when Tito re-appears in Cage's clinic, just in time to die of something that looks like a haemorrhagic fever.

I enjoyed this story most of all - though perhaps it was the wrong one to read when I'm suffering from a heavy cold myself! The Outbreak plot provides an excellent way to ratchet up the stress on the leads, not that the claustrophobic, frenzied underworld of Tenderloin wasn't doing that already, by exposing their families to danger. Certain plot developments were genuinely heart-wrenching, with Russo choosing the Cherryh school of character development, "Mmm, what would happen if I put Cage through an emotional meangrinder? Now what about Carlucci?" Be warned, this is by far the bleakest and most cynical of the three stories, but despite that, it's clearly the best, with Russo having learnt a lot about writing in the five years since Destroying Angel. The multiple plot lines are smoothly inter-related, and the ensemble cast reads more like having several full-blown lead roles, with the kaleidoscopic background of the Tenderloin and Core finally striking a harmony with the foreground action - in previous novels Russo tended to have distracting background detail thrown in for no purpose other than the clutter the page or plotline, a tendency he still shows in Ship of Fools in my opinion. I'm not entirely sure the plot came together satisfactorily at the end, but to frank, the emotional impact of the journey, and the strength of the writing in this final book meant I'd no problems overlooking any loose ends.

Overall? It's a pity Destroying Angel is so key in developing his shared world and the cast of characters, because the second and third novels in this trilogy are of much better quality. Despite this weak beginning, I'd recommend the Carlucci omnibus to those who like strong, gritty, dark cross-genre drama - particularly reminded me of novels like Jon Courtnay Grimwood's Pashazade, or perhaps Alistair Reynold'sChasm City. (No doubt someone with a brain less fuzzy with viruses can suggest better comparisons.)

Posted: Sun - October 12, 2003 at 05:17 AM