I love a good mystery. I love how it can make me scratch my head and furrow my brow in an attempt to figure out just what in the world is going on, trying to piece together shreds of evidence and intuition to get the bigger picture. I love the gradual process of uncovering the whats and hows, and, more importantly, the whys of some dastardly deed or shadowy scheme. And if the writer’s clever enough to throw in more than a few twists that take me by surprise, then all the better. When one has been reading mysteries long enough, it’s easy to predict what’ll happen next, and any time a writer can throw me for a loop it makes me ridiculously happy.
However, I’ll admit to having some bias towards a specific type of mystery. Growing up, my first encounter with the mystery genre was via the Nancy Drew books that I read in the library when I was eight or nine or so, but I very quickly grew tired of those and graduated to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as soon as I managed to locate where the school library kept its copies of Doyle’s works. As a result, I’ve developed a taste for what I tend to think of as the “British school” of mystery-writing: I kept coming back to Doyle, of course, but I also explored Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone, and, naturally, Agatha Christie.
It wasn’t until I was in college and had seen The Godfather that I decided to take a whack at what I considered the “American school” of mystery writing: the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. While I recognized many of the images and tropes of their novels, and thought some of the stories were actually quite fun (I have an enduring soft spot for The Maltese Falcon, which I’ll admit is partially driven by the 1941 movie), many of them tended to leave a vaguely bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was at the time, though I was quite sure it was a weird combination of the protagonists’ personalities and the plot. In the end, I told myself that I was just probably not used to the conventions of the genre, that I’d grown up too long with the British writers and therefore preferred their style over that of their American counterparts. I left the genre behind, and haven’t really looked back since, except whenever the concept of “noir” is brought up – which is, frankly speaking, the only reason I look back to the genre at all.
So when I found a copy of Ian Tregillis’s Something More Than Night, I wondered whether I ought to pick it up or not. The cover was exceedingly pretty (yes, I can and do judge books by their covers), and the blurb was interesting, even if I hadn’t read a single thing by Aquinas ever except where he was quoted for some reason or another during Catechism classes at university. But the rest of the blurb appealed to me – a lot. Angels getting murdered, heaven on the verge of collapse, and a cynical (as per the blurb) fallen angel who has to put everything together and figure out this whole mess? Surely it can’t be that bad. It might even turn out to be exceedingly fun.
As it turns out, it was fun, but not to the extent I hoped it’d be fun. In fact, there was quite a bit about it that I didn’t particularly care for, and depending on the reader, they might not care much for it, either.
Something More Than Night is set in a post-apocalyptic, somewhat-dystopian Earth. The archangel Gabriel has just been murdered, and all is not right in the world unless the angel Bayliss can, first, find someone to fill in Gabriel’s rather large shoes, and then figure out just who did him in. After all, if there’s something, or someone, out there that can snuff an archangel, then only think what that entity is going to do next. Might be they try to snuff another archangel. Might be they try to destroy the universe. And as Bayliss sets out to answer those questions, the reader is taken on a twisting, turning ride that goes from heaven to Earth and back again and all around, ending with a much bigger bang that launched it in the first place.
One of the first things the reader will notice upon starting this novel is the language: it’s almost all slang lifted from the novels of Chandler and Hammett, but mostly Chandler. If the reader has read any Hammett or Chandler in the recent past, then following Bayliss’s patter isn’t going to be too difficult, but for someone who hasn’t read any Chandler or Hammett in a long while (like I have), or who’s never read any of their novels, then understanding what Bayliss is saying is going to be somewhat challenging. There are enough context clues to piece together what Bayliss means, but the reading isn’t going to be very smooth for someone who needs a refresher course or beginner’s course on noir-speak. This can be problematic for some readers, who may just give up on the novel after the first chapter, but fear not, this novel does have its saving graces, and I’ll get to them in a little while
But since I’m on the topic of Bayliss, I think it’s also a good time to explain why I almost gave up on this novel entirely, and why I gave up on the private-eye novels of Hammett and Chandler as a whole. Remember what I said earlier, about the vaguely bad taste in my mouth that I got whenever I read any of Hammett and Chandler’s books? I finally pinned down its source: rampant, flagrant misogyny. Yes, I know it’s a feature of the genre. Yes, I know that I should have expected it, since it’s obvious that Tregillis is borrowing a lot of what and who Bayliss is from Hammett and Chandler’s novels – specifically Chandler’s. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, and I don’t, I really don’t. For most of the book I wanted to slap Bayliss, because by God, how dare he say these things about the female protagonist, and about women in general? Never mind the nicknames, like “skirt” and “twist” and all the others; it’s the condescension that really galls me. Even his compliments are vaguely condescending, and it gets my goat every. Single. Time.
Again: yes, I know these are standard for the genre. Yes, I understand that that’s how Chandler and Hammett wrote their characters, and how Chandler, especially, had his own character, Philip Marlowe, talk about women. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, and neither should any reader. While I applaud Tregillis’s ability to mimic Chandler’s language and arouse such strong emotions in me over a character (always bodes well for me reading other works by the author), I do rather wonder if there’s such a thing as a line that needs to be drawn when it comes to writing offensive characters like Bayliss. Even if he does get his comeuppance in the end, is that enough to wash the foul taste of him from the reader’s mind? Personally, I don’t think so. Just thinking about him gets me pissed all over again, which rather spoils the post-reading experience.
So just what about this novel did I find fun? One of those is Molly Pruet. If Bayliss makes me want to throw the book across the room in an angry rage, Molly makes me want to cradle it to my chest and make happy cooing sounds. She’s the victim of circumstance, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to take it lying down – well, all right, she does for a while, but once she realizes her mistakes she’s back on her feet and trying to figure out just what in the world is going on with her, and with the situation Bayliss has gotten her into. Of course, Bayliss is no help, jerk that he is, and she has every right to be mad at him (some of my favorite scenes in the book involve her putting the hurt on him – deservedly, I might add). But she rises to the challenge, and more than just the one Bayliss presents her: she is an example of all the things that are good about humanity, and quite a few things that are bad about humanity, too, but mostly good. And what she does at the end of the book is nothing short of spectacular, and makes up – somewhat – for having to put up with Bayliss initially.
The other thing that I found fun about this novel was the world-building. While I enjoy novels involving angels that are essentially humans with wings (or drop-dead gorgeous sex-god hunks with wings, as in the case of Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter novels), I appreciate it even more when a writer deals with angels that are much closer to their Old Testament counterparts: creatures whose appearance is difficult to describe because no mortal mind can truly comprehend what they are. This is precisely the route that Tregillis takes with the angels in the novel, lifting directly from Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite for his organization and job descriptions of each type of angel. Fortunately, previous knowledge of Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius isn’t necessary for comprehending the novel, since the angels and their hierarchy don’t play too much of a role in the story except where they parallel the power structure of some shady organization like the Mafia.
However, while it might not be important to know Aquinas backwards and forwards to enjoy the book, some reviewers have argued that a Ph.D in quantum physics might be necessary. This is due to the fact that Tregillis makes use of some rather deep and complicated quantum physics concepts to explain things that would otherwise be described in supernatural or religious terms. Take a look at this snippet, for instance, taken from one of the earlier chapters, wherein Bayliss describes the interior of Gabriel’s Magisterium, or “home,” such as it might be, in the Pleroma, or “heaven”:
From a wisp of magnesium (itself a sentimental remnant of an older star), Gabriel had hung fragments of conflicting realities like pearls on a string. Slivers of might-have-beens, universes with different fine structure constants, different electroweak coupling constants, different causality, no causality. Universes susceptible to mortal volition, universes impervious to it. Universes fine-tuned for complex life. Universes inimical to it. A reality where popcorn tasted like bitter wheatgrass and people sold brussels sprouts at the talkies. … He’d been charting the ontological boundaries of mortal existence.
And that’s not even the densest of the descriptions, as further down the line Bayliss really gets into it, while Molly, in the meantime, narrates in language so synesthetic that might not be out of place in a surrealistic poem. Tastes and sights and sound and memory all tangle together in a way that Tregillis thinks they would in memories, especially if those memories all got jangled up together the way they do for Molly.
Now, depending on the reader, these things could be a good thing, or a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing, mostly because I appreciate the way Tregillis has strung the concepts together in a way that makes it really rather musical to read. A lot of the quantum physics concepts go right over my head, and though I did some quick Google searches in hopes of understanding some of the stranger terminologies, I still couldn’t quite wrap my brain around some of them. Again context clues come to the rescue for the most part, but there’s still plenty that a reader might not understand. Some readers might find this very frustrating, but readers who are willing to let some things escape them as long as they aren’t that crucial to the comprehension of the plot will find getting through these parts a bit easier.
As for Molly’s synesthetic language, I think Tregillis really did some fantastic work on that. The imagery has a fluidity and dreamlike quality that I really enjoyed, and, like I said earlier, seems to belong in a surrealistic poem – specifically Octavio Paz’s Piedra del Sol. But some readers might not appreciate it in the least, might be looking for something a bit more concrete and less dreamlike, and so might not take very well to the early parts of the novel, which is where Molly does this the most.
Overall, Something More Than Night is best described as “a matter of personal taste.” My own experience with it is quite schizophrenic, because on one hand while I absolutely dislike Bayliss and didn’t enjoy the parts that were in direct imitation of Raymond Chandler, I enjoyed almost everything else. Molly Pruet is a female protagonist I can get behind, and Tregillis’s world-building is something to behold – but only if one has the ability to stomach long ramblings in quantum physics imagery. This is best for true, die-hard fans of noir detective fiction, but for any other reader, I say: approach with caution, and keep Google handy for looking things up as necessary. Trust me, it’s going to help a lot.