The first half of Three A.M. (2012) is dystopian noir, and the second half wants to be a thriller. This is Steven John’s first novel, and even though it has glitches, it’s successful overall. John creates an interesting premise and an eerie, atmospheric setting in the fog-filled city that is the main location for this story.
For fifteen years, Tom Vale hasn’t seen sunlight. He hasn’t seen stars, or green grass, or a tree. On a good day, when the fog lifts slightly, he can see to the end of the street where he’s walking. Tom was a soldier when the fog came, and he remembers it, and what came before; the sickness that killed thousands of people. Tom followed his orders: kill the sick, transport the survivors back to the city, then blow the bridges. Since then he has eked out an existence as a “detective;” mostly as a strongman or an enforcer. One evening at his favorite bar, a gorgeous blond girl in a slinky red dress accosts him. Her name is Rebecca. She wants to hire him. She says a man she knew, Samuel Ayers, was murdered, and they have the wrong man in jail for it. Vale puts her off, telling her to come to his office in two days and he’ll give her an answer.
Tom is a first-person narrator who takes us through his next few days. All food is canned or prepackaged. Because of the fog, produce can only be grown in greenhouses and is prohibitively expensive; cigarettes are a generic brand labeled CIGARETTES, but booze is still plentiful, and Tom spends most of his nights drunk or wasted on pills. During the day he fights through hangovers and investigates. He tells us about his current case, working for a man named Eddie Vessel, who provides warehouse services for people’s papers — mostly scrapbooks, souvenirs, pictures; pictures of sunny days at the beach, picnics, ballgames, all the things that are gone. Vale has the sense that he is being followed, but in the fog shrouded streets it’s hard to be sure, until he has confirmation in a gray alley:
Silence set in. I was sure they would hear my heartbeat, so thunderous was it in my own head. Still no sound. Then almost inaudibly through the swirling mist came a man’s whisper: “Arms out. Go.” And much more softly than before, two sets of feet began walking again.
I set off at a dead run, praying nothing would block my path. No stopping. No thinking. I ran as hard and fast as I could straight down the alley, my hand trailing against the wall to my left.
Vale doesn’t trust the beautiful Rebecca but he takes her case anyway. The man who was murdered was a scientist who worked for the Department of Research. Vale is groping in the dark, literally as well as figuratively, to draw his data points together, and his searching brings him to the attention of some powerful people. That’s when the book changes. Suddenly Vale is in the hands of the power elite, being shown the world behind the curtain, and the story morphs into a techno thriller. Vale changes from a booze-addled, self-pitying slug into an action hero. Steven John makes the shift successfully for the most part, but the explanation of the fog doesn’t ring true. It’s too complicated and it seems like it wouldn’t work. [SPOILER: If you want to read it, highlight the following text:] Four words: Google Earth; commercial airplanes. [SPOILER ENDS].
Vale interacts with two villains; the Sincere Villain, (“I’m a scientist, I never meant for this to happen!” etc.) and the Sociopathic Villain, who is much less believable but much more hate-able. John underlines his message by having Vale remember a time as a boy when he tortured the ants in an ant hill he found. Sociopathic Villain is engaging in roughly the same behavior on a larger scale.
There are a few problems. Rebecca is a male fantasy, not a character. She and Vale have sex in circumstances that make them look like candidates for the Darwin Awards. Once Vale knows the truth, it seems a little too easy for him to move around and accomplish his mission. The villains don’t really explain why they treat Vale as a powerless pawn one minute and a serious threat the next.
Whether I believe any of the thriller section or not, I like watching Vale struggle up the rocky path of personal redemption. There is good and thoughtful writing here, like the scene where Vale enters a closed factory and walks among a collection of old machines. I’m a sucker for clever names, so I’m pleased that Vale lives in a city obscured by a “veil” of fog; I’m pleased that Eddie Vessel functions as a repository for people’s memories and dreams. You can clearly read this book as a metaphor for the journey out of ennui or despair, or the search for meaning, but you don’t have to.
Steven John has talent and imagination. For the most part I enjoyed Three A.M. and I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with next.