I Only Killed Him Once by Adam Christopher

Reviewed by David Harris

This is the final outing, as far as I’m aware (though it would be nice to have more), for Ray Electromatic, Adam Christopher’s wise-cracking, Chandleresque robot detective and hitman. Ray’s investigations (and assignments) are made more difficult by the fact that his memory tape only lasts for 24 hours. After that he shuts down, to be awoken by the sultry Ada, his computer-embodied secretary to “another beautiful day in Hollywood, California”, with a fresh assignment and no knowledge of what’s gone before.

Ray was first introduced – as detective – in Made to Kill (reviewed here), where, apart from cracking the case, he discovered his true nature as a killer. The pattern of revelations as to Ray’s background continued in Killing is my Business (no spoilers!) so with the present book we’re primed, perhaps, for the focus of the case to be on Ray, what he is, where he came from – and what his future will be.

While the stories are set in the late 50s or early 60s, some years after an attempt at introducing human-like robots – of which Ray is the last – has been dropped, Adam Christopher beautifully evokes the noirish detective classics of the 40s, both in setting and language:

They say you should never start with the weather, but look, it was a dark and stormy night and I don’t care who knows it. 

I Only Killed Him Once is peppered with references to the classics, from the idea of having a man come through a door with a gun (but who, Ray wonders, said that?) to men in black suits to the diner late at night where Ray observes his latest target through the rain. (There is a repeated focus on looking in and out of windows – of various sorts – which made me thing of Edward Hopper’s paintings).

There are other, more recent, references too:

“Work of art, that is” he said. “Frame that; you could hang it in the Louvre.”

“Somewhere in the back,” said Philip from the memory machine.

“Hey, who cares, still the Louvre.”

I wouldn’t want to give the impression, though, that this book is only enjoyable for its allusions, like some kind of puzzle. There is much more to it. I loved that way that Ray struggled with his memory limitations, still recognisably the same character even as he tells his story in a recurring, continuous present. I liked his being the same character but developing (and challenging the idea that you make a robot once, to do a  certain task perfectly, and it never changes). The curious relationship he has with Ada (who is a whole other mystery) is touching. A book like this could so easily become just a challenge – write a Chanleresque detective story who protagonist is a robot – but Christopher does so much more than that.

While, to a degree, this story is wrapping up loose ends and bringing a conclusion, Christopher gives us a good meaty plot, plenty of action and a lot of mystery. Great reading, and full of ideas, this is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy and recommended whether you like SF, crime or just want to see how the two come together.

David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.

Adam Christopher, I Only Killed Him Once (LA Trilogy, 3) (Titan Books, 10 July 2018). 978-1783296897, 224pp., paperback.

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