‘The Spare Man’ by Mary Robinette Kowal – highly recommended.

I loved the style of ‘The Spare Man’. The tone of the storytelling channelled the sangfroid, charm and mild humour of upper-class amateur sleuths from an early golden-age mystery to tell the tale of a murder on a luxury space liner.

The amateur sleuthing couple, Tesla Crane and her husband Shal are engaging and, beneath the charm, quite redoubtable. She is a fabulously rich heiress who, before her tragic accident, was a leader in cyber engineering. He is a former detective, made famous by a reality TV show. They are spending their honeymoon travelling incognito on a cruise from Earth to Mars, accompanied only by Gimlet, Tesla’s service dog, a small white Westie.

The plot of the murder mystery works well. It’s like a very large locked room mystery, complicated by mistaken identities, additional killings, a focused effort to frame Shal and the belligerent intransigence of the aggressive, self-confident and mostly incompetent Head of Security.

The science and engineering in this Science Fiction novel stand up. They’re more than decorative. The technologies used are integral to the plot and seemed plausible to me.

While ‘The Spare Man’ echoes the charm of a Golden-Age mystery, it has moved away from early Twentieth Century mores and expectations. Non-binary gender pronouns are de rigueur and the passengers and crew are diverse in their styles and orientations. Tesla carries forward most of the action of the story with her husband mostly in a supporting role (partly because he spends much of the story under arrest. Tesla has a service dog because her accident left her not just with physical injuries that require advanced pain management, restrict her movement and sometimes cause her to use a walking stick, but with mental health issues linked to PTSD and survivor guilt.

‘The Spare Man’ also approaches privilege in a very different way than Golden-Age mysteries, which took for granted the wealth, leisure and social status of their detectives and so made no comment on it. In this book, Tesla Crane is made very aware of her privilege and has to decide what to do about it. Travelling incognito means that, while Tesla Crane is treated as a wealthy passenger travelling in the most luxurious part of the ship, she doesn’t receive the deference that her super-rich status would normally bring her. It troubles her that she eventually has to reveal her identity to get her own way. Even then, she is dependent on her very aggressive and extremely expensive lawyer to protect her. I enjoyed watching Tesla trying to figure out that what she thought of as tipping generously was actually a form of bribery to make people say yes when they want to say no.

I had a lot of fun with this book. It had a clever plot, fast snappy humour, an adorable dog and a sleuthing couple that I want to see more of.

All of these good things were amplified by Mary Robinette Kowal’s entertaining narration. I always hesitate when I see that an author has chosen to narrate their own book. Narrating and writing are two very different skill sets. I was delighted that Mary Robinette Kowal turned out to be talented at both. She carried me through the story effortlessly and gave distinctive voices to all of the characters, even Gimlet, the dog. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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