“The Night Market”
by Jonathan Moore
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
304 pages, $24
Jonathan Moore sets his new thriller in the near future, when San Francisco has become a hellhole of rampant street crime and consumerism run amok. For the populace, life is an endless round of compulsive and needless purchases, and the desperately covetous feed their habit by stealing. What's all the rage this week will be passe next week, replaced by a frenzy for something equally gaudy. Stores are redoubts to be stormed for the latest trinket.
Almost any service you can think of has been privatized or commercialized, and one cynic predicts – only half-jokingly – that it won't be long before urinals get “corporate sponsors.”Among the few civic entities left untouched is the police force. Or so it seems.
Walking these meaner-than-ever streets is Ross Carver, a veteran police inspector who does his work skillfully and conscientiously. One night, Carver answers a summons from his partner, Jenner, by reporting to a mansion near Coit Tower; there, Carver is warned, he will find a dead man who “looks like he got cooked.” Through Carver's eyes we catch a more vivid glimpse of the victim: “He looked like gray moss.”
Carver and Jenner are soon joined by FBI agents “dressed to weather a night on Venus” and by members of a decontamination unit, who order the partners to undergo an immediate cleansing in a truck parked outside. The process includes drinking a glass of foul-tasting liquid and taking a hit from a medic with a “jet injector inoculation gun.”
Turn the page and you find Carver lying in his own bed, being read to by a vaguely familiar woman. This turns out to be Mia, his across-the-hall neighbor, who says she watched a uniformed crew carry him inside three days earlier. Of that journey or the grisly death scene near Coit Tower, Carver remembers nothing.
The above is only the prelude to a grim and gripping tale of well-earned paranoia. One source of Carver's burgeoning mistrust is Mia herself. She has some strange habits, such as stripping the label off every bottle of wine in her apartment, rarely going out for any reason, and keeping such close tabs on Carver's comings and goings that she often opens her door while he is raising his hand to knock. But she proves a big help as he tries to retrieve the missing hours of his life, and he would love to trust her – if only she didn't seem too good to be true.
Moore blends his story's futuristic elements with more traditional tricks of the genre. Carver knows how to pick an old-fashioned lock and seems to have studied Popeye Doyle's moves in “The French Connection” – especially the last-second dash through the closing doors of a subway car. The talents that have made Carver and his partner “the longest-lasting pair of inspectors working homicide” would have served gumshoes of the 1930s equally well: Carver “could get up after a beating, and Jenner was usually smart enough to avoid whatever got thrown his way.” And for all its high-tech poisons and gadgets, this is a novel with ample kneecapping.
Moore, an attorney, uses his tight-lipped prose to fine effect: Carver sums up that knockout liquid he drank as “epilepsy in a cup” and notices “the riverine fissure marks” in a victim's skull. The author also takes advantage of San Francisco geography, putting to creepy use such familiar landmarks as Golden Gate Park, the Legion of Honor and the Fairmont Hotel.
The book's tone is Chandler-esque, the conspiracy worrying Carver and Jenner expands to Pynchonean proportions, and the physical ick they encounter might have oozed out of a Cronenberg movie. But on the whole, I'll wager, “The Night Market” and its predecessors, “The Poison Artist” and “The Dark Room,” are like nothing you've ever read. In his acknowledgments, Moore sums up the novels as “a three-panel painting of San Francisco.” As done, he might have added, by Hieronymus Bosch.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Washington Post Book World, where this review first appeared.