A Borrowed Man
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Out of thirty Gene Wolfe novels, I've read twenty-four. This is only the second time I've been disappointed. A re-read is probably in order, since I know that the surface of a Wolfe story is usually not even half of what's going on, but on first look this one seems to be a fairly simple mystery story. There are multiple SF elements, but none are explored to their fullest extent, which is the most frustrating part. Several characters come and go quickly, others are around longer, and you expect them to be more relevant to the plot, yet they also disappear without a satisfactory explanation. There are minor hints throughout concerning the world's situation; lower population (about one billion), advanced technologies (flying cars, robot servants), miniature nuclear power plants for home use, etc. All of these cry out for further exploration, but Wolfe doesn't go there.
The title character isn't really a man in the strictest sense, at least not fully human by legal standards. E. A. Smithe is a clone of a mystery author of the previous century. He lives on a shelf in a library, and can be consulted by researchers or fans of his work, can even be checked out for short periods of time. One thing he can't do is write more stories, although it was never explained how that restriction was controlled. Yet he is the one telling the story, so either he has figured out a way to circumvent that restriction, or else he is just reciting the events to someone else at a later date. If a cloned author is not consulted or checked out frequently, the library might try to sell them to an interested patron, or else destroy them. Even though Smithe is not a legal human, he still has human emotions and does not want that to be his fate, so he is overjoyed when a local school teacher checks him out for the maximum period of ten days.
Colette Coldbrook needs his help in unravelling a mystery that surrounds the deaths of her father and brother. A major clue is one of Smithe's novels, Murder on Mars, a copy of which was found in her father's safe. She is convinced it contains information concerning her father's mysterious financial dealings, as well as his very frequent disappearances over the years. Smithe does not remember the book, and speculates it could have been written sometime after the author was cloned but before his death. It is possible it was written by someone else, maybe even Colette's father, and it might be the only copy in existence, because searches for other copies for comparison return no results. This is just one of many things not explained. Did the real Smithe write the book or not? If so, why does his clone not remember it? Why is there no record of it in any library or internet archive? At least Smithe does figure out why it was important to Mr. Coldbrook, we do learn the man's secrets, then those secrets are destroyed. By Smithe.
There were several times I told myself the only reason I kept reading was because it was Wolfe. That's also the only reason I'll ever re-read it, although if that doesn't reveal any hidden clues I'll be doubly frustrated. If you eliminate the SF elements, and read it as a straight mystery, it's entertaining enough, although still frustrating. It reminded me of a lot of movies or TV shows when you know a character has a lot of information, but when questioned about it they reply, "I can't tell you yet, I need more information." Several things are said that contradict previous statements, but Smithe lets it go. That eventually makes sense because he is gathering clues, and he doesn't want to tip off anyone he suspects, which might put himself or someone else in danger. In the end, he solves the case but lets the perpetrator go for reasons of his own. Of course, I won't reveal any of that. If you are a mystery fan, you'll probably like it for those elements. If you're more of an SF fan, but think Wolfe is usually too convoluted and cryptic, this one might be more satisfying for you. If, like me, you revel in his more complex narratives, I'd say give it a pass.
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