Adam was a successful and talented member of the Telepaths’ Guild until his drug habit got him kicked out. Now he works for the Atlanta police department as a consultant and interrogator: after all, a Level Eight Telepath like Adam, who can quite literally get inside a criminal’s head, helps immensely when it comes to extracting confessions. Despite being one of the most successful interrogators on the force, his ongoing struggles with his addiction as well as the mutual distrust between “normals” and telepaths create an uncomfortable work situation for Adam. He’s kept on a tight leash, regularly meeting with his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor and relying on the police department for food and clothing because he can’t be trusted to handle his own paycheck.
Adam’s workload suddenly increases dramatically when Atlanta is shaken by a series of random murders, especially when it becomes clear that a telepath was involved in the killings. At first there’s no discernible pattern to the deaths, and the homicide department is careful to avoid using the words “serial killer,” but it won’t be long before the media gets hold of the story and public panic sets in. The pressure threatens to send Adam over the edge and destroy his precarious hold on sobriety.
Clean by Alex Hughes is the first novel in a new series called “Mindspace Investigations.” Based on this opening novel, it looks like the series will combine police procedural, crime and science fiction elements, set on a future version of Earth that went through vaguely described “Tech Wars” and has an organized guild of people with paranormal abilities such as telepathy and telekinesis. There’s a few mentions of other futuristic elements including off-world populations, and flying cars are featured prominently, but for the most part the setting of this first novel feels like a grimier version of Atlanta on our own Earth. It’s a shame, because the few teasers for genuine science fiction elements in this debut novel indicate that the series might get much more interesting for SF fans in later volumes.
The story is narrated from the first person perspective of Adam, the powerful telepath who fell from grace because of his drug habit. There’s plenty of focus on how difficult it is for him to stay on the wagon. The combination of this very real issue with his powerful telepathic skills should make him an interesting protagonist, but it’s unfortunate that much of the novel is narrated in an all-too-recognizable cop thriller tone. The initial description of the obligatory attractive female police partner reads “a thirty-something brunette, stacked, pretty, a workaholic, and perpetually in a bad mood,” and later on you’ll get mainstays like “I faced scarier things than him every day in the mirror.” The low point for me was the following groaner:
“It’s quite a can of jurisdiction worms you’re talking about, a can I don’t see any reason to open,” Paulsen said.
Occasionally Adam gets the chance to sound like a more authentic, interesting character, especially when Hughes has him step outside of the murder plot and show his more human side, but too much of the novel is filled with pedestrian boilerplate writing. It’s not just the prose that’s prone to this: sometimes the novel just feels like it was put together using elements that you’ve seen all too often: interrogation rooms, grizzled cops, morgue scenes. See also: almost any police drama on TV.
It’s always nice to see a character who struggles with his demons. Hughes makes a genuine effort to show a junkie’s fight to stay clean under the most trying circumstances, but it sometimes feels as if she wasn’t sure if she should focus on the character study, the SF elements, or the mystery. She ends up aiming for the middle, covering a little bit of everything but not enough of any of them. As it is, the mystery is okay but a bit predictable, the setting is okay but SF fans will want to know more, and the main character is intriguing but trapped in what often feels like a badly written, futuristic episode of CSI.
Then again, Clean is a debut and the opening volume of a series. There’s lots of room to improve, expand and explore here. I hope that Alex Hughes will build on this story, and that future novels in the series will stray out of the CSI template, reveal more about the science fiction elements, and still retain the edgy combination of Adam’s powers on the one hand and his delicate frame of mind on the other. This opening novel didn’t do it for me at all, but I could see all of these elements coming together more successfully in the future.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on September 12th, 2012.