Reviewed by Robert Runté
If you are at all into film noir or hard-boiled detectives, then City of Sensors may be for you. The setting may be near-future speculative fiction, but the tone is entirely that of classic B-Movie angst.
The story follows Detective Frank Southwood, a data cop whose partner has been murdered while investigating a money-laundering scheme. Frank is assigned his dead partner’s caseload but ordered to stay away from the investigation into her murder. Frank, having no faith in the abilities of the homicide squad and knowing in his gut that both cases must be linked, pursues both with a relentless disregard for protocol.
If that sounds like a movie that might have starred Humphrey Bogart you are not wrong, but our protagonist’s self-rationalizing narration reminded me most strongly of Detour, where each bad decision leads to . . . even worse decisions. By chapter 5, the stress has made Frank’s OCD worse, his loneliness collides with various femme fatales, and his gambling addiction and compulsive spending have left him broke and vulnerable at the very moment he intends to take on some of the city’s most powerful figures. Bottom line: Frank is an unreliable narrator and kind of an ass, but you can’t look away from this story of the rogue cop going undercover.
Frank moves through settings that alternate between glitzy casinos and seedy diners—a gritty, dark world that oozes corruption and menace. These are the contrasting neighbourhoods of the super-rich and the criminal-poor that exist in any large urban center, but which we know only second-hand because neither are neighbourhoods in which we would feel safe.
The speculative world-building focuses on the implications of cyber currency and data mining trends extrapolated to their logical conclusions. None of it is heavy-handed or didactic; instead, competing views and possibilities are woven through the story action.
Like the best film noir, there are little tidbits of memorable dialogue, action and description that elevate the book above mere storytelling. This is an oddly insightful novel about flawed people making their way as best they can through crappy alternatives in a fundamentally distorted society. Yes, the author presents a critique of the surveillance society and too-late-stage capitalism—an updated take on 1984—but with a better understanding, perhaps, of individual psychology. Where Orwell understood how the average citizen is manipulated and controlled, Todd understands the reality that there are always going to be at least some individuals so screwed up that they inevitably spin out of one’s control.
This is Todd’s first novel, hot off the press, and the best novel I’ve read so far this year.
The City of Sensors is published by Now or Never Publishing