I thought that the flaws in Adam Christopher’s first Chandler-esque robot PI novel, Made to Kill, outweighed the positives, and thus gave it a rating of only 2 ½ stars. The tougher-than-steel detective/hitman Raymond Electromatic is back in the sequel, Killing Is My Business (2017), and while it improves upon its predecessor in many ways, it never really breaks out of the gate, leading to an improved but middling 3-star rating this time around.
The noir/sci-fi mashup is set in a 1960s Los Angeles and in a world that was once rife with robots but that then decided it had been a failed experiment and so rounded them up for destruction. All save Ray, the last one made and also a bit unique, thanks to some special upgrading by his creator. Programmed to be a detective, Ray’s computer boss Ada decided that PI work wasn’t paying the bills and so moved Ray into the more lucrative hitman business (thus the title). Ray’s first target in Killing Is My Business is killed off in the first few pages, which sounds great for an assassin protagonist, save that Ray had nothing to do with the killing. Eventually he moves on to another job, this one a Sicilian don holed up in a castle-like mansion in LA, paranoid, apparently, that someone is after him (someone, of course, is). But that first job continues to haunt the book and Ray’s memory circuits, though only in glimmers and glimpses, since Ray’s “life” is complicated by the fact that his memory is limited to a 24-hour period. Each day he wakes up having to be told by Ada the “need to know” information from the day before.
This memory issue offers up some nicely built-in tension, as one is never quite sure how level Ada is being with Ray or whether she truly has his best interests at heart. It also means the reader picks up on things Ray does not, since we’ll see important pieces of the puzzle — a particular car, a face — that don’t mesh for Ray into a larger picture because he doesn’t recall those details from earlier encounters. This is humorously emphasized by the way he keeps picking up the same book and starting from the beginning, despite the dog-eared pages marking how far he’d gotten in it in earlier attempts at reading it. While I liked the potential of this complicating factor, sometimes it can be a little frustrating and it can also lead to some repetition, even on a sentence level, as Ray tells us a number of times that some little detail buzzed his circuits.
One complaint I had about the first book was that the Chandler-esque language, while often successful executed (especially at the start) sometimes felt forced or overdone, especially through an overuse of hard-bitten similes. That tic has disappeared here, and I had few issues with the style in terms of it feeling forced, but unfortunately it felt like the fixes created a new problem: a more bland, pallid kind of style, one that was no longer problematic but that also lacked any sparkle or energy.
Similarly, Made to Kill’s gaping plot holes have mostly been patched, but while an improvement on a basic craft level, the story failed to excite or compel, and some points seemed a bit too easy for a reader to suss out for a mystery. And there remained a few issues with plausibility or points at which characters’ actions or reactions (or lack of action/reaction) didn’t seem all that plausible. The novel does resolve its main story while extending a larger mystery that one assumes will be further revealed or perhaps concluded in a third book.
The characters themselves were thin, feeling more like simple props in the story than living, breathing people. The non-living character, Ray, has some complexity to him in that the reader is pre-disposed to like him, being that he is the protagonist, the narrator, and has the vulnerability of that memory limit. But then there’s the whole hitman thing, and his wiliness to knock off the innocent, so there’s a nice level of grey to him. But it’s tempered somewhat by the fact that he’s programmed to be that way, and while he does have a personality in a sense, it remained difficult for me to warm to him as an engaging character.
So in lots of ways, Killing Is My Business shows some real improvement in the basic construction of a novel, but nothing about it — plot, prose style, characterization — really grabbed me and though it clocks in at under 300 pages, it felt like a longer read than that. Here’s hoping book three will show continued improvement.
Killing is My Business is the second novel in Adam Christopher’s RAY ELECTROMATIC series — which, if you don’t already know, features a nearly 7-foot-tall robot who was originally designed and built to be a private investigator. As it turns out, killing people is far more profitable than simply finding them, so Ada — the A.I. calling Ray’s shots — has changed their operating parameters. Ostensibly, I suppose the books should be considered linked stand-alone novels, but I recommend reading them in order, so that certain details in Killing is My Business make sense.
If you’ve read Made to Kill, you may recall that the ending seemed to promise big changes ahead for Ray’s day-to-day life. As Killing is My Business opens, we leans that Ray’s 24-hour memory tapes still give him grief, though Ada is more than happy to update him on any pertinent details. Ray’s a little off his game, sad to say: after a month of tailing an intended target, the man saves Ray the trouble of killing him and leaps to his death from a sixth-story window. His next mark is absolutely nowhere to be found, no matter how hard Ray looks. And the third job is strangest of all; Ray must save the man’s life and gain his confidence before ultimately dispatching with him. Curiouser and curiouser.
This third man, one Zeus Falzarano, is a real piece of work. A former Sicilian mobster, he’s relecated to sunny Southern California and continued amassing an impressive amount of wealth and influence. Among his various lackeys are Alfie Micklewhite (which gave me a chuckle), an affable sociopath with terrible taste in fashion and excellent taste in cars; and a stunning beauty simply called Carmina, who might have more going on for her than just a raging libido. Falzarano is, additionally, guarded by a literal army of men clad in dark suits and sunglasses, so Ray’s got his work cut out for him.
Christopher’s got a better handle on who Ray is and how he sees things this time around; in Made to Kill, Ray’s repeated mentions of his memory’s limits became repetitive, but in Killing is My Business, Christopher backs off a little on the reminders, and I was grateful. There were some wobbles here and there, all the more noticeable because of the memory-limit repetition, but I’m not sure whether they were due to authorial misstep or part of a larger yet-to-be-revealed plan. Of more concern was the way the ending created more questions than answers, leaving even the most basic elements of the original mystery unsolved. The final chapter felt like it needed to be longer, and certainly less abrupt, as I don’t buy any of the provided explanations (though I don’t think I’m supposed to). Rather than tying up loose threads, the overall effect is of dumping out a sewing box and walking away. Again, there’s obviously more in store for Ray and Ada, but the result of leaving so much left unfinished is a vague sense of disappointment. I know more now than I did before reading Killing is My Business, but I’m also aware that I know quite a bit less than I’d suspected — which would be fine on its own if the novel didn’t just simply end, almost in the middle of a conversation.
On the other hand, the RAY ELECTROMATIC series is wonderfully atmospheric, evoking everything from film noir to Raymond Chandler’s novels to pulpy sci-fi movies. Whereas Made to Kill’s climax had a B-movie sensibility that would make Ed Wood gnash his teeth in envy, Christopher pulls back the reins in Killing is My Business, focusing more on the noir aspects. It’s closer to the great success he had in “Brisk Money,” the short story that started him down this path, and I hope to see this trend continue. There’s an additional novella in this series, Standard Hollywood Depravity, which I haven’t read yet but plan to, as I’m still intrigued by Ray himself and the idea of the last robot in the world going about his days as a private investigator-cum-hit man.
Readers, we have a paperback copy of Made to Kill and a hardcover copy of Killing is My Business to give away to one lucky commenter! U.S. and Canada-based mailing addresses only, please.