Pet Noir, by Pati Nagle – book review by Fred Patten.
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Cedar Crest, NM, Book View Café/Evennight Books, August 2013, trade paperback $14.39 (iii + 180 [+ 1] pages), Kindle $4.99.
In an undated far future, Leon is a kitten biomodified to talk and with an opposable thumb. Here he’s being taken by his handler at four weeks old from the industrial lab where he was born to his new home, in a cat carrier:
“I could just see his face if I pressed up against the wire. He watched me, looking kind of wary.
‘So what’s this Gamma Station?’
‘It’s a transportation hub out near Cygsee Four. It’s where I live and work.’
‘No, it’s a nice place. You’ll like it.’
‘Cygsee Four. That’s Cygnius 61 C IV, right?’
‘That’s in the middle of nowhere.’
‘Nowhere’s a relative term, Leon. It’s got a lot to offer. Better than living in a lab.’
‘Well, no. But there’s a nice park. You can run on the green grass.’” (pgs. 3-4)
Leon has been modified to become an undercover detective on Gamma Station, a smaller transportation hub to the outer space colonies. Smuggling of bioenhancers has been taking place, and the smugglers have escaped detection so far.
“Modifieds like me were still fairly rare, but there were enough of us around that some of the organics were beginning to feel threatened. Bioenhancers enabled them to compete, enhancing their performance in everything from mental function to stamina to strength.” (p. 9) Bioenhancers are only available under rare circumstances and strict medical supervision, which has created a demand, an illegal underground market, and dangerous shoddy imitations. Hence the creation of Leon to track them down.
“‘Modified kitty?’ asked a cheery woman’s voice. ‘I need to see her travel permit, please.’
‘His!’ I yelled. ‘Can’t you tell a male from a female?’
‘She can’t see you, Leon.’
‘She can smell me, can’t she?’”
‘Humans can’t smell as well as you, Leon. Didn’t Jill tell you that?’
‘Yeah, but geez. Can’t tell male from female? That’s pathetic.’” (p. 5)
The theory is that with Leon’s combination of human intelligence and feline abilities, he should be able, disguised as an ordinary cat, to uncover the smugglers. However, the authorities that gave him human intelligence didn’t count on the problems with keeping his feline personality: arrogance, extreme independence, and egotism:
“I ignored him, and by doing so accidentally discovered something of which I would make fuller use in the future: Chief Wright was concerned about my well-being. Concerned to the tune of several million credits, though I didn’t find that out until later.” (p. 6)
The background is all in Chapter 1. From there on it’s the mystery. Or mysteries; Pet Noir actually encompasses five cases that Leon investigates and solves on Gamma Station, from blackmail to murder. Chief Wright is only the human who brings Leon to Gamma Station; his regular human partner there is Security agent Devin Munroe. You can tell from the samples quoted that most are light rather than dramatic (except for “Murder in the Rotunda”), but the mysteries are well-developed whodunits, and the overall novelization is a surprisingly good space opera. There are aliens, clones, the problems of cats dealing with zero-g, “photographs” that are so accurate that they include scents (which is important to some plots), and more. Most of the five are regular mysteries just set in outer space, but at least one is a genuine s-f mystery. Even the stories that are just regular mysteries in s-f costuming are wittily decorated:
“I trotted in at Devin’s heels, past the front desk where the duty guy glanced up and gave Devin a nod.
The guy looked like a perfectly normal human except that his skin was a pale aqua color, and his blond hair was tinged slightly green. Fashion choice or different species? I wasn’t sure.” (p. 34)
Leon is only a lively kitten in the first story. He grows into a mature adult cat in the others, which are set several months apart. One of the pluses of Pet Noir is how all of the regular characters – Leon, Devin, the Oriental restaurateur Ling2, the other cats of Gamma Station, and others – grow and evolve over the course of the book. I could have done without the fantasy aspects that Leon, being bioengineered, is able to speak both English and feline; and that his girlfriend Leila, a rich woman’s pampered Burmese, sprinkles her feline dialogue with cultured French expressions; but Carole Nelson Douglas, Rita Mae Brown, and other mystery writers have made talking “cat cozies” respectable. Now there’s one that furry fans will enjoy. It’s too bad that the final story wraps everything up; I would have enjoyed more adventures of “the most dangerous cat in the galaxy”.
The book’s cover is also by Pati Nagle. Several novels have excellent cover paintings by their authors, but this is the first that I’ve seen where the author is also skilled at photoshop artistry.