Who better to solve a mystery you don’t want official investigated than a mystery writer? A mystery writer, who has spent their whole life studying crime, is perfect—especially when that writer is a cloned version that can be “checked out” from a library and threatened with all kinds of things to keep them from talking. When E.A. Smithe is checked out by Colette Coldbrook in Gene Wolfe’s A Borrowed Man, he has no idea that he’s going to land right in the middle of a huge conspiracy. Even though the case is dangerous, he has to accept because solving it might help him avoid the fate of all cloned authors: eventual burning once they’re no longer checked out.
Smithe has a very boring existence in the Spice Grove Library. No one is particularly interested in checking him out and he’s not allowed to write. It’s a relief when Colette Coldbrook checked him out for ten days to ask him about a side project he wrote in his original life. The book, Murder on Mars, was nothing special, but Colette suspects the book contains the secret of her father’s sudden wealth and her brother’s murder. Like most women in noir plots, Colette is lying; she has her own secrets to conceal. But in the world outside the library, she’s one of the few people Smithe can trust as he gets deeper and deeper into the mystery.
The plot kicks into high gear when Colette disappears from her hotel room after she and Smithe question the physicist her father had consulted before his death. Alone, Smithe is sent back to the library system. He doesn’t stay there for long, however. He is soon checked out by two cops (of a sort) and beaten for information. The only thing he can do after that is start investigating, putting to use all the information and tricks he picked up during his first life. Then things get really weird once he discovers what Colette’s father was actually up to in his laboratory.
I did get a little lost towards the end. Smithe falls into the habit of many Golden Age detectives of concealing what he learns from the people he questions and the clues he finds. We have to wait until almost the end when Smithe starts talking. I knew things were more complex than they appeared, but I didn’t twig to one character’s complicity until near the end.
I did like Wolfe’s blend of futuristic science fiction and old style noir. A good noir plot will always work, no matter the setting, because people will always be people in spite of their post-scarcity world and their robots. The science fiction elements—cloning, the library system, the flying cars, etc.—added a little spice to the book, while the noir elements kept everything grounded enough that the setting didn’t feel completely alien. The flaws in the book (if you consider them flaws at all) are all callbacks to noir and Golden Age detective novels.