What if Raymond Chandler had written science fiction? The premise behind Adam Christopher's latest novel, Made to Kill, is as simple as that. That said, he milks that idea for all it's worth. Set in an alternate version of Los Angeles circa 1965 — a timeline where John F. Kennedy is still alive and Soviet agents wielding strange technology lurk around every corner — the book is an homage to the hardboiled fiction that Chandler exemplified, set against a backdrop of Red Scare paranoia. The main difference between Chandler's work and Christopher's pastiche, however, is as playful as it is profound: The private detective is a robot.
Raymond Electromatic is Christopher's Philip Marlowe, only cast in steel and titanium. The lone survivor of a failed attempt in the 1950s to bring robots into the American mainstream, Ray now keeps in office in Hollywood, taking cases for the right price. The rest of his mechanical brethren were scrapped long ago after people became understandably creeped out by legions of robot janitors and robot crossing guards. (Christopher blames the real-world phenomenon of the uncanny valley, but he coyly avoids using that term, which had yet to be coined in 1965.) As it turns out, humans do indeed have a good reason to fear Ray, even if they don't know it: Directed by Ada — a computer designed by Ray's late creator, Professor Thornton, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances years prior — Ray is also a hit man. Er, a hit robot.
As stories like this tend to do, Made to Kill opens with a damsel in distress — or is she a femme fatale? — showing up at the intrepid detective's office, hoping to hire him for a particularly mysterious job. In this case, it's the assassination of a movie star named Charles David. The catch? Ray has to find him first, and that won't be easy. With the gala premiere of David's new movie Red Lucky happening that Friday, Ray's internal clock gets ticking. He trawls the Hollywood underworld, seamy and glamorous at the same time, looking for clues to David's whereabouts. Ray's sleuthing is inhibited by his Achilles' heel: His magnetic-tape memory only lasts twenty-four hours, after which he must return to the office to have Ada replace it. Forging on, he comes across a plot that, predictably yet thrillingly, involves far more than a quick hit — and that winds up being tied into a deadly secret of his own.
Ray's name is an obvious tip of the fedora to Chandler, just as Ada's name is clearly taken from the 19th-century computer pioneer Ada Lovelace. The book abounds with historical and pop-cultural Easter eggs. But Christopher is cleverly subverting Chandler's legacy as much as he's celebrating it: Chandler was famously a hater of science fiction, despite the fact that his chosen genre, the hardboiled detective story, shared science fiction's pulp origin. Made to Kill finds the common ground between the two, and Christopher owns every inch of it. Like the best hardboiled fiction, the novel nails the atmosphere and texture of midcentury L.A. — or at least, Chandler's vivdly rendered version — while gleefully thumbing its nose at Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.
None of this would work, of course, if Christopher didn't hit exactly the right tone and rhythm. He does, unfailingly. From Ray's internal struggle as a being who is willing to kill (but doesn't particularly remember why) to the growing tangle of colorful secondary characters, Made to Kill skims along without becoming mired in angst or exposition. The dialogue is effortlessly swift and clever, and even the B-movie climax is a spectacle to behold. Above that, though, Ray sparks to life, and his antiheroic slant only makes him that much more compelling and sympathetic. Made to Kill is the first installment of a planned trilogy, but it has all the potential of an open-ended series; knowing there are only two more Raymond Electromatic mysteries to come is the book's only disappointment.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.