Completed 1/2/2023, Reviewed 1/2/2023
I am generally not a fan of noir. For this book, I tried hard to put that aside and be open to a new experience. It’s touted as an alternate history tale, so I thought it would be different. Instead it was dull and confusing. In this universe, Osama bin Laden is character in a series of pulp novels and there is no terrorism. The protagonist is a gumshoe hired to find the books’ author. Excerpts from the books are interspersed throughout the narrative. These excerpts are the actual terrorist actions instigated by al-Queda. They are still disturbing to read after twenty years. Despite these, the book is just one big snoozer. Somehow, this book beat out some really big names to win the 2012 World Fantasy Award.
Joe is a private investigator with an office set up in the capital of Laos. In typical noir fashion, he smokes and drinks too much. A mysterious and beautiful young woman hires him to find Mike Longshott, the author of the Osama bin Laden: Vigilante series of pulp novels. These books are wildly popular despite being what some call escapist trash. She gives Joe a black credit card for payment and expenses. Joe takes the case and travels to Paris, London, and eventually New York trying to find Longshott. Along the way, he is physically and mentally harassed by mysterious men who want him to drop the case. He finds himself with prostitutes, in an opium den, and in other situations trying to find the author.
The book has six parts, the first five are straight-forward in the narrative. Joe travels, gets beat up a lot, eventually finds a lead, and goes to the next location. The last part, though is very confusing. Joe finds himself in Kabul watching the bombing of the city, as if he is a character in one of the books. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that this alternate universe is a kind of Purgatory or Limbo where people killed by terrorist acts in our dimension are sent. And Joe might just be one of these “refugees” himself. That’s my interpretation of it. I’m not sure if it’s the correct interpretation or not. The ending is purposefully vague and maybe misleading. I could have this all wrong, but that’s what I got out of it.
Despite disliking this book, Joe was an interesting character. I liked following him around. What I didn’t like was that people were after him and constantly roughing him up and we don’t know why. It was like they were the thought police, trying to get him to disclose information about Longshott and the Osamaverse. But Joe doesn’t know anything except what’s in the Osama books. He doesn’t know the answers to any questions they pose. For some reason, though, he continues his quest. He has drive and from somewhere, he is motivated.
One thing I thought was interesting was the use of opium. Besides being a horribly addictive drug, it also seemed to be a portal to our universe. When Joe’s path leads him to an opium den, he quickly gets high from being around all the smoke. He fades out and into our reality, seeing t-shirts with Metallica logos, ads for The Gap, and Star Wars paraphernalia. But he doesn’t know what all this is because it’s not in his universe.
As I sit and reflect on this book, I’m coming to realize that it’s has a lot of potential. It’s well written, although there’s not much action or dialogue. And the concept of the refugee, or ghost, or fuzzy-wuzzie perhaps being a person from our dimension is quite interesting. But I can’t help think that reading it was a chore. I was frustrated with the pointless beatings Joe got. I got tired of the endless prose. I didn’t like not knowing where this book was going, and then getting to the end and it being more vague than the preceding parts. The concept may be inventive, even genius, but I thought the execution sucked. I give the book two stars out of five. I really have no motivation to try anything else by this author.