Lather, rinse, repeat. In Metal Sky, his second adventure of "psychic" private eye Jack Stein, Jay Caselberg offers up a heaping helping of more of the same. Here Jack and Billie, his pubescent orphan Girl Friday, have relocated to another moving city, this one the clean and upper-crust Yorkstone. And once again, Jack is approached by a beautiful mystery woman, this time to locate an artifact she says has been stolen by an acquaintance. Since she is a beautiful mystery woman in a detective story, it's as obvious as Jerry Falwell's homophobia that she will be hiding something at best or an outright liar at worst. And sure enough, as Jack tries to put together the pieces of the puzzle, the usual detective story stuff starts to happen. People turn up dead, red herrings jump out of alleyways, rich bosses turn up to say things like "Whatever she's paying you, I'll double it." And so on.
You know, when Chandler and Hammett were concocting their classic detective stories, and inventing all the tropes that generations of writers have eagerly employed, they at last had their gumshoes do stuff. But Jack Stein, well, he just seems to stumble along. Hell, even poor put-upon Billie complains that he has her do all his work for him. Stein just isn't that interesting a detective character. And as for the "cool" qualities that we've come to expect from these archetypes — well, Stein just ought to stay home. After all, when the very mention of the term "private eye" more often than not conjures up an icon of cool like Humphrey Bogart, you know you've got some serious shoes to fill. Jack Stein just isn't up to the task. And once again, Stein's so-called "psychic" abilities play such a minor role in Caselberg's plot development that they seem a narrative afterthought.
And I just can't help finding it a bit odd that a case of potentially "change the course of human history" import finds its way into the hands of a no-account, low-rent shamus like Stein. (In this series, first contact has yet to be made, though the first novel indicated that hints of alien civilizations are being found.) I know that Caselberg has done away with centralized government in his future, but geez, isn't there anyone out there more important (or even worthwhile) than this loser Stein to whom obscenely rich people can go when their lost alien whatsit needs recovering?
In my review of Wyrmhole, I mentioned that Caselberg has qualities as a writer. But Metal Sky shows he has yet to realize them. True, his storytelling is brisk and accessible; it never loses your interest, but that is solely because it zips along so breezily. There's just not that much there to compel your interest either. The relationship between Stein and Billie still skirts the edges of credibility. Her often fully justified frustration with Stein, an emotionally stultified character if ever there was one, rings true; it's clearly not just adolescent petulance. Admirably, Caselberg hints that Billie is growing into herself as an individual for the first time, taking on possible career interests. But then she'll act in childlike ways that are pretty unconvincing coming from a 14 year old who grew up on the streets and now has things like menstruation and rampaging hormones to add to her list of hard-life issues. And, in a leftover bit of dubiousness from Wyrmhole, I'm still not sure I believe that Billie would have much reason to want to take up with Stein in the first place.
Sorry, but Jay Caselberg just isn't selling me on this series. For those of you looking for top-notch SF noir, I'm sorry to have to say, move along, folks. There's nothing to see here. Move along.