The Spare Man
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 25, 2022
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I received an e-ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The Spare Man will be published on October 11. I don't know if it might be the start of another series, but even if it is, this is a complete and satisfying story. The cover image alone should confirm it, but Kowal has been forthcoming that it is an homage to The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, although probably more so for the film series than his final novel. There are definite similarites, but also major differences. Instead of a locked room mystery, this is a locked spaceship mystery, set aboard the Lindgren, a cruise vessel on its way to Mars.
The Thin Man's Nora Charles was a rich heiress married to a retired detective. This book's Tesla Crane is also rich, but only partly due to inheritance. She was also a brilliant engineer, still receiving royalties from several inventions. Her husband, Shalmaneser Steward, is a retired detective. They are on their honeymoon, traveling incognito, under assumed names and disguises. Like Nick and Nora, Shal and Tesla are fond of cocktails, with very expensive tastes. Each chapter begins with a cocktail recipe, not all of which figure into the action in that chapter. The major difference between this and the Hammett novel becomes apparent shortly after the first murder. Hammett's Nick Charles was reluctanly pulled into the investigation since everyone assumed he was already involved, having had previous professional contact with the victim and related persons. Here, Shal is the first suspect, having been identified by a witness. I may be mistaken, but I don't recall it being revealed who the witness was. Shal is confined to the brig after being roughed up by ship security. Later, after being released and allowed into another cabin, not their original one, he ends up in sickbay due to a poisoning. In defiance of her attorney's advice, and Shal's pleas, Tesla wants to investigate, knowing full well that Shal is innocent.
Shal is debilitated by both the beating by ship security, along with recovering from the poisoning, so even if he wanted to investigate he is limited in what he could do. Tesla has disabilities of her own. Early on we learn she has implants in and around her spine, and a neural device, a Deep Brain Pain Suppressor, which she can dial up to shut out most all pain, most all sensations too, or down so she can maneuver while also being able to judge any physical damage she may have incurred. Dialing the DBPS down also allows her to feel the touch of her beloved husband. It is not until later that we learn she also suffers from PTSD, the result of an industrial accident which damaged her spine and almost killed her. Her dog Gimlet is a service animal, trained to sense her physical conditions, aware of things that might trigger negative reactions. Gimlet figures into the unmasking of the murderer, but not before being lost or dognapped.
There is only one thing I'll criticize. Along with being a service dog, Gimlet is also very precocious and playful, and Tesla allows her to be petted and picked up by others, something normally not allowed by most people with service animals. The animals themselves would usually avoid that type of activity too. Yes, Tesla used it as a distraction at times, and it did aid her in spotting the suspect, but still done too many times to be realistic. Otherwise, this is a typical mystery, albeit with lots of SF overtones. Red herrings, multiple people who say and do suspicious things, even one who turns out to be guilty of an unrelated crime. The only two people I never suspected of guilt were Tesla and Shal, everyone else seemed to have had motive and opportunity. I was puzzled up until the very end, after many wrong guesses. This should appeal to both mystery and SF fans. If there is a sequel I will read it. Recommended.
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