The Automatic Detective
A. Lee Martinez
Dresden Files, move over. The Automatic Detective has stolen my heart as the best scifi/fantasy-detective noir crossover out there. The characters are fun and funny and it is a well-written, enjoyable spoof that carries and twists all of the tropes of the noir genre. Our first-person narrator and PI, Mack Megatron, is an AI-driven robot, which, created to help destroy civilization by a mad genius, unexpectedly developed the "Freewill Glitch" and refused to kill. So now he's trying to eke out a living in the big city as a cab driver while waiting out his probation. As the first killer robot to get the Freewill Bug, the city is still waiting to see if he'll snap back to his violent programming. He isn't adjusting too well--he can't really understand how "biologicals" think and, despite quite a few sessions with a robot psychiatrist, he still thinks of himself as a machine rather than a person. Isolated and practically friendless, he spends a lot of time on low power, staring blankly at his refrigerator. But suddenly he's forced to snap into action. When one of the few families who is kind to him, his next-door-neighbors, are kidnapped, Mack forswears logic (that requires turning off his "difference engine") and sets out to find them. The remaining adventure pulls elements from standard noir--femme fatals, gangsters, and banter abound--and science fiction--almost everyone in the town has some sort of mutation due to vast amounts of pollutants--in a completely original way and from a totally new perspective epitomized by his appearance: a bright red robot wandering around in trenchcoat and fedora.
Take the common "hardboiled detective novel" tropes:
- Hardboiled: Mack can take some damage, all right. He was built as a tool of destruction, after all.
- Totally blunt and direct: "My shrink says I should work on my social subroutine."
- Daddy issues: Most noir heroes have sad pasts, usually due to family issues: abuse, being orphaned, etc. Mack's creator was a mad genius, now housed in an asylum-come-prison, and Mack was programmed to be loyal to him. That ends up creating quite a bit of inner conflict.
- Femme Fatals: the lovely Lucia Napier has her sights firmly set on seducing--or at least confusing--Mack. He starts out being extremely bemused by her flirtation, only able to identify it via statistical analysis. He also keeps thinking of her as being squishy: "Attractive to 92 percent of the average biological populace with an eight point margin based on personal preference."
- Damsel in distress: the mother and daughter Mack is out to find, the only people, before Lucia, who got near to his armor-crushing strength.
- Idiotic closemouthedness: much of the plot of a noir novel is driven by the protagonist's completely stupid unwillingness to trust anyone or tell anyone about what he has discovered. A new twist: the bad guys stick a worm in Mack's programming. He literally can't tell anyone about what's going on.
Fun and brilliant as a spoof, this book sold itself by the characters. Maybe they're not totally deep, but they have entertaining quirks and are extremely sympathetic. Robot or no, Mack Megatron is the most entertaining and sympathetic protagonist I've read for quite a bit.