Murder Mystery Meets Sci-Fi in Nick Harkaway’s ‘Titanium Noir’

Lee Polevoi

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Titanium Noir

By Nick Harkaway



All forms of fiction require from the reader a willing suspension of disbelief, a readiness to let go of “reality” and just have fun. Sometimes, authors crank up that level of disbelief to towering heights.


British author Nick Harkaway’s growing body of work forthrightly makes this demand on readers. For his novels to succeed, we must first accept the fictional lives of spies and pirates, mimes and ninja warriors, assorted mad geniuses and serial killers.


It’s a tribute to Harkaway’s skill that we mostly do fall in line with his outlandish plots and cartoon-adjacent characters.



And there’s the bottled-up energy in his prose. For example, near the beginning of his previous novel, Tigerman (2014), a police sergeant living on the mythical island of Mancrue observes a pigeon being consumed by a pelican:


“This morning, the pelican had had enough, and when the pigeon came between her and a bit of tuna, she had just opened to the fullest extent and engulfed the fish fragment and the pigeon both, to squawks of outrage and alarm from her antagonist. To the Sergeant’s eye, her swollen gullet had possessed at that moment the dreamy smugness of a trick well played, but he acknowledged inwardly that the faces of birds were impenetrable, so it could as well have been the foreknowledge of indigestion.”


If that’s not enough to draw readers in, it’s hard to imagine what else would.


Harkaway’s new novel, Titanium Noir, continues in this vein. A mash-up of science fiction and hard-boiled detective story, it starts out promisingly enough. Cal Sounder, a “police consultant,” investigates the murder of a Titan, aged 90 but due to advances in technology inhabiting a 30-year-old’s body (and, when alive, standing more than seven feet tall). Cal’s investigation into this “dead nerd” spirals into unforeseen nooks and crannies, with dangerous repercussions.


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At the crime scene, Cal takes a close look around the dead Titan’s office:


“I shuffle all the way back on the dead man’s office chair until my feet come off the floor and then I push off with my right hand so that I’m spinning slowly around. The chair is a science chair, translucent and nasty. They take a seed from your ear cartilage and grow it and then you sit in it because something immune response something biota. Supposedly, it’s good for you, but who knows? High-ticket item. Round and round I go in the dead nerd’s chair, which I guess is technically part of the corpse.”


Unlike earlier novels, a lot of the world-building framework in Titanium Noir seems flimsy. Harkaway leverages the mechanics of a police procedural to tell the story, thus entailing long patches of elementary Q&As on the part of the detective-protagonist. The result is a fair amount of expository dialogue, and not rendered in an especially compelling voice. The first-person perspective also narrows the scope of the story. 


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Odd lapses occur as well in the novel’s internal logic. Titanium Noir takes place in a near-future world not so different from ours (except for things like a “science chair”). Presumably, instantaneous communications should be commonplace if our present-day society is any model. But as Cal questions individuals linked to the deceased man, news of the Titan’s death seems to come as a complete surprise to just about everyone, regardless of how much time has passed since the discovery of the body.


Titanium Noir is roughly half the length of prior Harkaway novels. This paring away sets a faster-paced narrative in motion, and Harkaway’s signature playfulness and imagination often shine through. But for some readers, this may feel less satisfying and fleshed-out than in past efforts. Cal Sounder’s tough-guy talk doesn’t sound all that tough, and the femmes fatale scattered throughout the novel don’t seem all that fatale.


Pick up one of Harkaway’s earlier novels, like Angelmaker or Tigerman, and see for yourself how hugely talented this writer is.


Author Bio:

The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, a novel by Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, has just been published.   


For Highbrow Magazine


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