Private eye Felix Strange doesn’t work homicide cases. He saw enough dead bodies fighting in Iran, a war that left him with a crippling disease that has no name and no cure. So when Strange is summoned to a Manhattan hotel room to investigate the dead body of America’s most-loved preacher, he’d rather not get involved.
Strange knows that his hiring is no accident. He can’t see all the angles, and he knows he’s being watched. He’s got a week to find the killer, and even less time to get the black-market medicine he needs to stay alive. In a race against time Strange must face religious police, organized crime and a dame with very particular ideas, while uncovering a conspiracy that reaches the very heart of his newly fundamentalist nation.
June’s Hodderscape Review title was an interesting choice. At first blush, Elliott Hall’s The First Stone seemed more a crime thriller than an SFF novel, however there are certainly speculative elements to the story. Most of these are due to the narrative’s dystopian tendencies and near future setting. It made for a fascinating and somewhat chilling world and one whose elements are frighteningly plausible.
The future United States in which The First Stone is set has turned into an even stronger surveillance state. The movement towards ever closer and all-encompassing scrutiny was begun with the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11. Yet it is the complete and utter destruction of Houston by Iran that moves the USA even further to the right and towards an even more fundamentalist mindset. There are shades of Orwell’s 1984, the citizen informers of the Soviet Union informers, the current revelations about the NSA surveillance and the police state. In short, Felix Strange’s world is a frightening one.
Such a society is a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy and corruption. It also puts the government apparatchiks constantly on the defensive to retain control of their position and powers. The government’s policies are dictated by a strong fundamentalist religiosity and are aiming to curb all sinfulness, so as to be morally superior to the rest of the world. In many ways it reminded me of the Cromwellian Protectorate and its strict morality laws. This also leads the USA to reinstate what amount to crusades into the Middle East to convert the non-Christians in that region. This also leads to one of the main plot devices in the form of Felix’s debilitating syndrome which he caught during the war. His treatment by the VA and society felt reminiscent of reactions to PTSD and Gulf War Syndrome. Both were at first regarded as phantom afflictions, as not real, and were only acknowledged as ‘real’ medical conditions years and even decades after they were first reported.
While the creating of this brave, new world is seemingly secondary to the plot – which is a relatively straight-up murder conspiracy, although the conspiracy is complex – with Hall slipping in many of the details almost in passing. Yet this hierarchy is deceptive, because without the society Hall creates, the plot could not have taken the shape the author gives it; both work hand in hand to create a fantastic story. The murder mystery was intriguing and very well structured. Hall creates a believable dystopia, one in which the eventual denouement of the mystery seems inevitable, if it hadn’t been this time, then at some point in the future.
The novel’s main character, Felix, is fantastic. Despite the near-future setting, Felix is a hard-boiled PI, with the accordant vocabulary; he uses dame unironically. Hall’s description of his struggles with his medical condition and his dependance on expensive drugs, which he can only acquire illegally, is impressive and I found the way it influences his every decision convincingly portrayed. His connection to Iris is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because she is an interesting woman, with her own goals and ideals, who is a good partner for him. A weakness, because their romantic connection is almost instant and as such feels a little unconvincing. Despite this, I really enjoy their connection and their dialogues. Another of Felix’s friends I really liked was Benny, an FBI agent, who is one of Felix’s squad mates from Iran. They have kept their friendship even after shipping home and theirs is the friendship of two men who have faced the worst together and have come through it. A similar unspoken comradeship is displayed with the other veterans he encounters during his investigation.
Elliott Hall’s writing is smooth, pacey and really funny, yet also contains lots of pathos and makes you feel for the characters. I really enjoyed The First Stone and hopefully I’ll get the chance to read more by Elliott Hall in the future. I know I’ll be keeping an eye out for the two other Felix Strange novels. The First Stone is an interesting, creepily dystopian, near future murder mystery that should be appealing to both hard-boiled crime lovers and fans of dystopian fiction.