The Hard-boiled mystery genre has been so thoroughly imitated that it’s difficult to capture the deadpan rhythms of noir without succumbing to parody. It’s even harder to write future noir, the sci-fi offshoot where every good book is inevitably compared to Blade Runner. So Adam Sternbergh deserves credit for degree of difficulty. His first novel pays homage to noir past and future past, but it’s also uniquely attuned to contemporary urban anxiety. Helps that Shovel Ready is damn funny, too.
The setting is near-future New York City. Following a Times Square terrorist attack, the rich have retreated into a decadent virtual reality and the middle class has disappeared, leaving the broken-down city in a state of lawlessness. Our guide through this fantasy of degentrification is a trash collector-turned-hitman named Spademan. The name evokes Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon hero, and Spademan’s narration is Bogart-cool, written in razor-sharp one-sentence paragraphs. Sent to kill the daughter of a prominent evangelist, Spademan gets embroiled in a cyberpunk plot that variously recalls Chinatown and Paradise Lost.
Some of the twists are obvious, and there are dashes of debut-novel pretension. But the page-turning mood of Shovel Ready is addictive, by turns death-metal brutal and darkly hilarious. The culture editor for The New York Times Magazine, Sternbergh has a newsman’s eye for dry detail. When Spademan watches a man shot to death mid-drink: ”Exit wound swallows the shot glass.” When he dispatches someone with a box cutter: ”Watch him bleed out on the leather. Blood puddles on the touch screens.” Sternbergh is planning further Spademan novels. Good thing. You finish this book ready for more of his scared new world. B+