Made to Kill: Should have kept it as a long short story

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In his afterword to his new novel Made to Kill, Adam Christopher explains how the idea first saw life as a long short story/novelette entitled “Brisk Money.” While this more extensive take on the story is still relatively slim for a novel, coming in at just over 200 pages, I have to admit that it seemed to me that Christopher would have been better off simply writing another “episode” of his narrative via another short story rather than trying to expand the original into something larger.

That original story germinated out of a question from a Tor roundtable: “If you could find one previously undiscovered book by a nonliving author, who would it be?” Christopher, a huge Raymond Chandler fan, thought he’d like to read Chandler’s “lost science-fiction epic” (Chandler famously hated the genre).

And so we have Made to Kill, a Chandler-esque tale, albeit with a 6’10” robot as the hard-nosed PI. The setting is Chandler’s mid-1960’s L.A., and like all good noir tales, this one starts off with a mysterious dame appearing at the door of the PI with a request. Our “hero,” Raymond Electromatic, is the last of the robots (they turned out to be a failed techno-social experiment, though Ray is a bit unique) and works as a PI by day and a hitman by night, though really he isn’t averse to some killing while the sun’s out — whatever pays the bills. The brains of the business is an AI named Ada (as in Ada Lovelace, early computer pioneer), who gets their jobs, finds information, and sets Raymond straight as to what happened the prior day, a task necessitated by the inconvenient fact that Raymond’s memory tapes only holds 24 hours, and so each morning he “wakes” without knowledge of what happened the day before.

The woman who jumpstarts his newest case is famed actress Eva McLuckie, who surprisingly knows what Raymond and Ada really do and is here to order a hit on one of her co-stars, Charles David. Of course, in true Chandler fashion, there’s a lot more going on and as Raymond investigates further the case spirals ever outward, encompassing Soviet spies, the CIA, and even, maybe, someone who is risen from the dead.

To start with the positive, Christopher, especially early on, captures a nice bit of Chandler’s style and voice and does a good job as well in recapturing Chandler’s setting, at least in the details. A long scene set in the Ritz-Beverly Hotel, for instance, gives Christopher a great opportunity to display the ostentatious wealth of that upper class while offering up some spot-on examples of Chandler monologue:

I reached the start of its driveway around ten in the morning and I was looking for lunch around the time I pulled into the guest parking lot… The place looked like an expensive kind of wedding-cake, one that looked good in pictures but probably no so much up close.

Another plus was the main character, who comes across as a likeable grunt with some darkly grey areas, a guy stuck in a bad situation and doing what he has to do in order to survive, even if that means offing the occasional innocent bystander. His inability to recall the prior day’s events adds a nice bit of complexity to the story, as readers are never quite sure how much to trust his partner Ada. Ray highlights this tension several times, pointing out he’s pretty sure she’s not telling him everything that she knows.

Unfortunately, these positive aspects of Made to Kill were overpowered by the novel’s flaws. While Christopher does a nice job in small doses of capturing the Chandler voice, over time some of the lines began to feel forced and repetitive. There were far too many similes (often centering on the same action, such as Raymond’s noises or Ada sounding like she was smoking) and at times the vocabulary didn’t seem true to the character, as when Raymond tossed around words like “lug” or “cat.” In those instances, he felt more like a robot programmed to sound like a Chandler narrator (or a character “programmed” by an author to do so) than a robot programmed with his creator’s personality as a template, which is what he is. And while I did like Raymond’s grey nature, it’s also true that it being a product of his software, with little sense of the possibility of change or little sense of introspection, robbed this quality of some of its power, as such lack of agency is almost always less interesting.

As mentioned, that detail about his inability to recall past events added some tension, but beyond that, it felt like it fell short of its rich potential. I kept waiting for it to play much more of a role in the plot. As for the plot, it just became more and more absurd so that one began to wonder if Christopher was moving from homage into over-the-top parody. Especially in his villains, who were wholly cartoonish. Worse though, were all the plot holes which led me on more than a few occasions to write in my notes, “But why didn’t he just…“ or “Why would he…“ or “Wouldn’t she just…“

I have not read Christopher’s original story. I’m guessing that many of these flaws are either missing entirely or are far less distracting. I can see how a short story, or an episodic series of said stories, would work with both this style and character, but in Made to Kill, the form and its content are too mismatched and the elements are stretched to their breaking point and beyond.

Published on November 3, 2015. It was just another Tuesday morning when she walked into the office — young, as I suspected they all might be, another dark brunette with some assistance and enough eye black to match up to Cleopatra. And who am I? I’m Ray, the world’s last robot, famed and feared in equal measure, which suits me just fine — after all, the last place you’d expect to find Hollywood’s best hit man is in the plain light of day. Raymond Electromatic is good at his job, as good as he ever was at being a true Private Investigator, the lone employee of the Electromatic Detective Agency — except for Ada, office gal and super-computer, the constant voice in Ray’s inner ear. Ray might have taken up a new line of work, but money is money, after all, and he was programmed to make a profit. Besides, with his twenty-four-hour memory-tape limits, he sure can keep a secret. When a familiar-looking woman arrives at the agency wanting to hire Ray to find a missing movie star, he’s inclined to tell her to take a hike. But she had the cold hard cash, a demand for total anonymity, and tendency to vanish on her own. Plunged into a glittering world of fame, fortune, and secrecy, Ray uncovers a sinister plot that goes much deeper than the silver screen–and this robot is at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Made to Kill is the thrilling new speculative noir from novelist and comic writer Adam Christopher.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I actually just finished reading this! I had almost the exact same reaction to it, too.

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