Keith Hartman,
The Gumshoe, the Witch,
and the Virtual Corpse

(Meisha Merlin, 1999)

For the record, I hate Keith Hartman. I've never met the guy, don't know much about him, but what I do know is this: His debut novel, The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse, is better than any first novel has a right to be. Like anyone else with aspirations of writing the Great American Novel, I get royally ticked any time someone else does so, especially on their first try.

And this is easily the best debut genre novel in years. Set in a future Atlanta (where magic, be it Christian, Native American or Wiccan, is commonplace), Gumshoe offers us more protagonists than I've seen in a while, and gives them amazingly unique voices, from the Witch (who works as a reporter during the day) to the Chosen (Benji, a teen who believes that God has chosen him as the butt of every cosmic joke), to the Lunatic (a Cherokee shaman who wonders why the totems she sees are as likely to look like Bugs Bunny or aliens from Star Trek as bears and monkeys). Having eleven (yes, eleven!) characters narrate in the first person is an amazing feat for any writer to pull off. The fact that Hartman manages to give them unique voice (I quite honestly didn't have to even look at the chapter headings after a while) is astounding.

The plot? Well, we've got the Cherokee, attempting to get the United States to uphold the Supreme Court rulings of the early 19th century granting them North Georgia. We've got a gumshoe with some serious issues. We've got a Southern Baptist senator/televangelist who argues about a devil-worshiping anti-Christian conspiracy perpetrated by everyone from Jews to Wiccans to Unitarians (and if he can't find evidence of the conspiracy, he'll fake it). We've got a dead body in a graveyard that might have been carved up by Wiccans, or maybe by Christians. We've got the witch/investigative journalist looking into the mystery, as well as the Baptist News Network and the regular Atlanta police force. And we've got a missing psychic private eye who works with a number of these characters. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. What's amazing isn't the disparate plot elements; it's that Hartman manages to make them all work.

Thick as it is in characters and plot, where Gumshoe really shines is as a social commentary. Although Hartman is coming from the left in general, he's not above poking fun at the excesses of anyone, ranging from homophobes who are willing to overlook their stance against abortion upon hearing that the fetus has tested positive for the "gay gene," to art snobs who are so caught up in their own pretentious world, they're incapable of recognizing real art when they see it. But for all the satire and commentary, Hartman gives us genuine characters -- everyone, from the Baptists to the Quakers, the homosexuals to the heterosexuals, the Wiccans to the Cherokee, is portrayed as an individual, not just another icon in a group. And the world itself is fully believable, every little image extrapolated from contemporary society, with some absolutely brilliant visions of a future America. The little touches -- a vending machine that offers brie and watercress sandwiches, a bondage-themed gym using a rack for pull-downs -- override whatever touches of cliche (references to the Stallone and Heston presidencies) that creep in.

This is not a book for the faint of heart (the graveyard mutilation, as well as some of the later crime sequences, is easily gross enough to fit into a Laurell K Hamilton novel), nor for those who might be easily offended, but if you want a great read and/or a book that actually makes you think (even while making you laugh out loud), this is a damned good novel.

Three final caveats: First, the editing, frankly, was pretty atrocious in the opening chapter or two -- once you get past the third chapter, the grammar seems to have righted itself. Second, do not start this on a worknight, as it will keep you up all night reading. And finally, Hartman's next novel isn't due out until next June, meaning one heck of a wait until more of this great stuff!

[ by Adam Lipkin ]

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