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The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
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Jan 05, 2010

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Read in January, 2009

Book Review: ‘The Automatic Detective’ by A. Lee Martinez
Tor, 2008
ISBN-10: 0-7653-5794-1
317 pages

What makes comic books one of the more addictive creations in existence? They stand somewhere between a book and a movie, those colorful pages with their little bubbles of dialog. I suspect most of us go through a stage of absolute comic book addiction, and some of us never get out of it.
In fact, it’s probably a good guess that Japan consumes more comics than books. Of course they call them graphic novels now, but they’re still comics. My addiction was in the fourth grade, and while I never liked Superman (I preferred nerdy Clark Kent), I ate up Batman. If my source, a neighbor kid, hadn’t dried up, I might be reading them still.
The Automatic Detective is a comic book short of the pictures. That really annoyed me when I read it. Here was the perfect comic book adventure, the bang-up battles, the seven-foot hero, the clichés coming thick but still tongue-in-cheek, and nary a picture but on the cover. True, the cover is lurid enough, but who’s the brunette? Didn’t anyone tell that artist blondes are the classics in detective novels? The author knows. He’s got blondes in the book. Why didn’t someone take that artist aside and explain what a faux pas he made with his brunette? Though he did get the bust correct. And you don’t want to know this cup size. They do make supersized in more than fast food meals.
As you might guess, The Automatic Detective is a comic book in prose. The trench coat wearing dick is Mack Megatron, a seven-foot metal bot striving to earn proper citizenship in Empire City. He’s a probational citizen, since he was originally designed by a mad scientist to Ravage and Conquer the World. Having Free Will, however, Mack overcame his blood lust and tries to be good boy (though he still needs therapeutic smashing and bashing sessions). Just a little more good behavior, and he’ll be a full-fledged citizen. If he can just hang on and conquer those urges…
But there’s still a need for a bot who likes to smash and bash in Empire City. Mack’s next door neighbors are visited by a thug. Mack tries to intervene, but the frightened family shoo him off. Then Ma, Pa, the little boy and the little girl vanish.
But little April is a clairvoyant who gets glimpses of the future. She manages to pass Mack a note. Find us, it says.
No self-respecting soft-hearted metal monster could resist such a plea. Soon Mack’s on the lam from his cab driver job, on the hunt for the thug and his killer drone friends. Aliens pop up, and lustful blondes too (though this blonde lusts for Mack’s technology). Mack enlists the aid of his gorilla friend (take gorilla literally here), not to mention a tough but sympathetic cop, and soon the blood, the bits of metal, and the clichés fly. Mack, Savior of the World! He even wins that citizenship.
As you tell, this is a light hearted book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’m not sure there’s a single cliché of the pulp detective genre the author doesn’t take in vain, but it’s intentional fun. Yes, Mack gets a trench coat. Yes, Mack gets the blonde girl (though since he’s metal and she’s flesh and blood, I rather scratch my head over how this romance will work out in the long term). Yes, Mack gets plenty of outlet for his smash and bash. It really should have been in a comic book.
But read it for fun, and picture those bright colorful pages as they should be seen─with the little bubbles of dialog hovering by their mouths. Ah, the joy of comic books!

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Michael You are certainly right, this book might as well be a good comic book. But since it isn´t, we hold this entertaining trashy novel in our hands. And maybe the brunette on the cover is a blonde?
Did you rate the Automatic Detective with three stars because it isn´t a comic book?

Danielle Parker Hi Michael! Thanks for reading my review.

No, I didn't rate it three stars because it isn't a comic book... as a kid, I loved comic books (and don't dare start reading them again, even as "graphic novels", because they're downright addictive).

The book got three stars because I am a generally tough rater except when a book really hits me; three is a "good or fun read" to me but not a "I'll rush out and buy everything this writer did no matter how much it costs".

And I suppose I could see so much of this story coming before it happened... the drawback of having fun with tropes, I guess. But what fun this author had with those cliches (and the reader, too!)

I actually hate to give out "ratings" and really shouldn't. I'd simply rather say what I felt about the story.

Michael Hello Danielle,
I see what you mean, I just was surprised because your review sounded rather positive. This rating system is always tricky. I try to rate every book for what it is, which is to say that a comic book may get five stars while an ambitious novel might receive only four, which does not indicate that the comic book is better than the novel.
In The Automatic Detective you get what the cover and the blurb do promise: It´s a trashy genre novel with lots of weird ideas.
But no matter how you rated the Detective: I really liked your review.

Danielle Parker Thanks, Michael. You made my day! :)

I make no pretense to a logical system on the ratings. Sometimes I rate a book higher than a "better" book because it's not great literature, but it's good of its kind (which is what it sounds like you do, too). Or just because I had fun with that book.

I try not to second-guess myself and change the rating later. The first reaction is the heart-felt one.

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