‘Murder By Other Means’ is a novella-length noirish thought-experiment that explores a new ‘What if?’ in the world John Scalzi created in ‘The Dispatcher’, another novella-length piece of speculative fiction, that explored the impact of a VERY big change in the natural order of things: 999 times out of 1,000, murdered people come back from the dead. Scalzi offers no explanation of why the murdered come back. It’s just a change that happened one day and that the world adapted to by creating Dispatchers, people licensed by the state to kill you in the event of your imminent death by natural causes so that you can instantly reappear, naked but healthy, in your home.
Both novellas are written from the point of view of Tony Valdez, an almost-but-not-quite anti-hero who works as a Dispatcher. In ‘The Dispatcher’, times were good for Tony. Work was steady and somebody had to do it and not everyone can just pull the trigger, kill someone and then go get coffee like Tony can. Then he finds himself involved in the apparent abduction of another Dispatcher and gets lots of unwelcome attention from the police and a local organised crime boss while Scalzi had fun exploring all the implications of the murdered coming back. It was a fun ride if you could swallow the initial inexplicable change in the state of the world.
Scalzi published ‘The Dispatcher’ in 2016. In 2020, in ‘Murder By Other Means’ he paid Tony Valdez another visit and explored how the criminal world would adjust to the threat being taken out of murdering people. Times are no longer good for Tony. Austerity has defunded much of the work of Dispatchers and Tony is finding himself having to bend the rules to pay his bills. He lands in trouble when one piece of rule-bending results in everyone associated with it turning up dead, permanently and by their own hand, and Tony is in the frame as either the one behind the deaths or the next one to die.
This was fun in an unemotional be a good sociopath and focus on the puzzle and not the dead bodies sort of way. The plot was satisfyingly twisty. Even when I was sure I could see all the pieces, I still couldn’t see how they fit together until Scalzi explained it all. Maybe I just have an evil mind, but it was fairly obvious to me what other means organised crime would use to replace the threat of murder, so that part was no surprise. That still left a whole bunch of interesting things to figure out. Who was doing the threatening and why? How could they be stopped? And what did a failed bank robbery have to do with anything? It seemed to me that Tony Valdez had softened up a bit since the last novella and showed a surprising degree of empathy for someone who chooses to shoot people in the head for a living but it sat well on him.
This was an entertaining way to spend three and a half hours. The first-person point of view worked well as an audiobook, Zachary Quinto’s narration was easy on the ear and, if you’re an Audible member, it’s included with your membership. Why not give it a try? After you’ve listened to ‘The Dispatcher’ of course.