Jon Courtenay Grimwood often writes what some call post-cyberpunk (Charles Stross labels him "... the only real heavyweight ... of orientalist post-cyberpunk fiction" on the cover of 9Tail Fox) but the utter lack of a consensus about what that means makes the category less than useful. As the world has caught up with cyberpunk, it's become clear that technology has tended to change the basis of social interactions, but has not incubated an epidemic of alienation. So some post-cyberpunk fiction meditates on technological mental excursions without the hard edge.
But Grimwood, at least, has held onto the punk. Cyberpunk was mostly a movement of mood anyway—the sense of being alienated and overwhelmed by the onrushing future and the broken society that it created—and Grimwood has retained the body image obsession that cyberpunk explored through out-of-body experiences and implants. He also has a flair for antiheroes, from the misanthropic superspy of Pashazade (2003) whose mental problems seem artificial but are probably actually endemic, to the lonely emperor of Stamping Butterflies (2005), desperate to escape himself. Since the mood of cyberpunk itself evolved from hardboiled detective fiction, it's unsurprising that Grimwood has written an entertaining noir. 9Tail Fox has all the lean prose, sex, and violence that implies, with one real innovation—the hero is dead.
Detective Bobby Zha is a long-time resident of San Francisco's Chinatown, where he is a friend to the homeless and children not his own and a prick to everyone else. He is not the first of his family to be involved in the cops and robbers game—his grandfather was on the other side. He is investigating a murder case in which a young girl claims to have shot a robber in her grandfather's Russian Hill home—in the head, from across the room, with a gun too big for her to lift. When a homeless man says he's found a dead baby with a tail, Bobby quickly finds himself deserted at an inopportune moment by his partner, and then dead. But of course, this is a novel about life after death, so Bobby wakes to find himself in the body of a brain dead car crash victim named Robert Vanberg and heads back to San Francisco to investigate three murders, one of them his own.
It's an appropriate conceit, because the central character of a noir is often the one who sees the clearest. Though he may know the least about what's going on, his vision is dark but true, and can even be appreciative of beauty and innocence, however briefly it may last. The unexpired Bobby is entangled in the world in which he lives, failing as a father, policeman, and husband, and neither his cop's instincts nor his deeply buried kindness can save him. His understanding of the world is best captured in a remembered anecdote. When his aunt gave him a copy of Munch's "The Scream," he notes
Almost nobody else he showed had understood the picture ... the man on the bridge wasn't screaming. It was the world around him that screamed, that was why the man had his hands clamped over his ears, to keep out the noise. (p. 155)
The newly deceased Bobby, on the other hand, is free of his past and is therefore much better at living. He impersonates a CIA agent, drops by his own funeral and dances around his wife and daughter. He soon hooks up with a younger cop from the precinct, and spends his time parlaying his knowledge of Chinatown and the murder case into some strange stares and a great deal of information he never would have gotten alive. The case comes to involve vivisectionist Soviet doctors in Stalingrad, homeless veterans of ill-defined wars, and a lot of people interested in disembodiment.
Grimwood's prose is spare and effective, sketching skullduggery and action without anything extraneous, and his wry observations can summon a surprised laugh. He has always been a writer of location and incident and his descriptions of Chinatown and its characters are spot-on. One of the remarkable things about San Francisco is its compactness, and Chinatown is no different—the whole thing is a few blocks on a side, but it's a distinct town unto itself. There's a claustrophobia to the twin societies that Bobby inhabits, namely the police department and Chinatown, that permeates the novel like the smell of cheap cigarettes in the back room of a Chinese restaurant, both comforting and vaguely unpleasant.
Unfortunately, the plot gets more than a little confusing, partly because the reader sees more of the situation than Bobby does, so it's hard to keep track of what he knows. There's an overly explanatory chapter set in Stalingrad that the novel would have been better without. However internally consistent things may be, to the reader, it seems that Bobby stumbles around until something hits him over the head and he realizes that he needs to wrap things up. Still, like many noir novels, by alienating the detective from his fellows, 9Tail Fox weaves a character study into the action, and that keeps things interesting whenever the plot fades out.
The central question of the novel is whether Bobby led a good life, and if not, what kind of redemption he can summon up in his second chance. While living, Bobby thinks of himself as a decent, if unfortunate, man. After he comes back, everyone's happy to tell the new guy that the old one wasn't a winner, including Bobby's reasonably friendly old boss:
"You didn't really like him, did you?"
"Not by the end," said Lieutenant Que. "All the same he had a way with kids and bums that got through to them." (p. 151)
The observation about kids and bums is equally true for Grimwood, who writes dark stories but has a soft spot for the broken and overlooked. The self-awareness is difficult for Bobby; like most people, he thought he knew himself. But the verdict is virtually unanimous—it becomes clear that he's mistreated his friends, family and most acquaintances, and the fact that he feels bad about it is not enough to make him decent. As he observes while manipulating the Lieutenant, "It was the action of a shit, and Bobby wasn't that, except that he was and apparently always had been." (p. 115)
His saving grace is that he's a likable asshole, and that he actually cares for the people around him, and that's what brings the novel together. Bobby's afraid of everyday life, but he can do the right thing under pressure. He's a womanizer, but women like him despite that. He's messed up his daughter even more than the average parent, but he tries for a posthumous reconciliation. Most of all, he confuses people, and watching Bobby Zha wander around disturbing the sordid lives of everyone else is a joy all by itself.
A final note: One of the pleasures of the small presses is that they tend to actually read their books before printing them, and put together a well-designed package that accurately reflects the contents. Night Shade Books, artist Jon Foster, and designer Claudia Noble have produced a beautiful cover that playfully evokes the dime-novel roots of Grimwood's novel without disrespecting them.