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A Borrowed Man
by Gene Wolfe
TOR Books, $25.99, 297pp
Published: October 2015

This is a delicate tea cup, clingy silk chemise kind of murder mystery.

But set in a very strange future filled with flying cars, and ‘bots and “reclones” -human/humanoid clones of famous authors that can be checked out of a library. They actually live in the library in little cubicles, are clothed and fed and have the ability to think and reason beyond the simple “recording” of their original author’s life. It’s a very interesting tale.

The plot really feels like a 1930s mystery with dames wearing cloches pulled low on their heads, purses, tucked up tightly under their arms getting into fast roadsters to see snarly detectives. There are even uncut emeralds whose unusual source has been undiscovered until the events of this novel.

Colette Coldbrook checks out E. A. “Ern” Smithe, a mystery writer from 187 years in the past (we don’t get an actual date for either his past or where they are in the future except it’s the twenty-second century). There’s a highly collectable novel written by Smithe called “Murder on Mars,” a book Colette’s father owned---it was discovered as the sole item in a safe. And it is the key to a very far-out bit of scientific legerdemain created by Coldbrook in a laboratory tucked away in his house. Colette’s brother Conrad was found dead shortly after giving Colette the book. Colette’s father has disappeared and been declared dead.

Despite the odd bits of the future this is a low key mystery about a high-living family and just who killed Coldbrook Senior and his son and why.

Colette hopes the reclone might tell her something about “Murder on Mars” and why her father valued it so highly.  Smithe is very straightforward (he’s the narrator of the tale) and explains his actions, just so there is no confusion. He leads us through the convolutions of the double murder and the killer’s motivations and eventually just why his novel is so critical to the story.

Wolfe is a wonderfully deft author and here his touch is, as I said in the beginning, very delicate and subtle. His creation of the author Smithe, his “recloned” personality and actions are so compelling because Wolfe has given Smithe, despite his ease of movement and dialogue a definite, though refined air of being not quite human.  ~~ Sue Martin

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