Made to Kill is billed as the first in a series of detective novels by Adam Christopher, author of the well-received debut Empire State (2012) and a number of other works. The book is an homage to the hard-boiled mysteries of Raymond Chandler. Set in the same sleazy Los Angeles as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, Made to Kill features its own wisecracking private investigator, Ray Electromatic.
Although Ray sounds like Marlowe, sharing the street-lyrical voice of the “shop-soiled Sir Galahad,” there are some important differences between the characters. For one, Ray is a robot. Set in 1965, the book imagines an alternate reality in which robots had briefly taken over menial and dangerous jobs in the United States. But due to resentment over job losses and the fact that robots “were actually a little creepy,” the Department of Robot Labor pulled the plug on every automaton but one.
Ray is the last of his kind, but also the most advanced. He is “a grand experiment,” a robot “[m]ore human, on the inside anyway, with a personality based on a real human template.” That template is Ray’s now-deceased creator, Professor Thornton.
Thornton also created a talking computer, Ada, with “a personality template all her own,” though Ray never learns who that was. Ada was programmed to turn a profit in order to make Thornton’s machines independent of federal government control. Ada and Ray started off as the Electromatic Detective Agency, for their computational skills made them an excellent investigative team. But then Ada’s computations alerted her to an even more lucrative line of work—murder for hire. And so Ray morphed from a private investigator to a hired gun.
As advanced as Ray is, he suffers from the data storage limits of the 1960s. Each day he must replace his internal memory tapes, giving him serious short-term memory problems a la Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and making him incredibly reliant on Ada. If Ray doesn’t make it back to the office in time to change his memory tapes, he blacks out, a clever adaptation of the Chandler trope of frequent bouts of unconsciousness caused by gun-butts to the back of the head or slipped mickeys.
Like any good detective novel, Made to Kill begins with a beautiful woman walking into Ray’s office. But because Ray’s business has evolved, she’s not bringing him a simple missing person case—she wants him to kill movie star Charles David and brings a stack of gold bars to prove she’s serious.
Like a Chandler novel, the client turns out to be more than she appears and the detective gets enmeshed in a complicated web of lowlifes and high-society lowlifes. But in keeping with his robotic protagonist, Christopher enmeshes Ray in the wider and zanier world of his alternate reality. In Christopher’s version of 1965, John F. Kennedy is still alive, and the Cold War runs hot with double agents, mind control devices and superweapons.
With the fate of the free world hanging in the balance, the stakes are much higher for Ray than for Philip Marlowe. But it is never made entirely clear why Ray cares. He is surprisingly patriotic for a hit-robot. This likely stems from Ray’s “human template”—that of Professor Thornton—but much of Ray’s origin remains a mystery, particularly the question of why only he was spared when the robot labor program shut down. I suspect that later books in the series will provide further illumination, but for now Ray’s ultimate motivations remain cloudy.
Made to Kill is a pitch-perfect tribute to Raymond Chandler, but its unique premise builds on rather than merely imitates the work of the master. The novel zings along with spitfire dialogue and madcap action. This is a solid kickoff to a fun new series, and I look forward to reading the next Ray Electromatic Mystery.