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Polar City Blues by Katharine Kerr

Grafton, 1992, 345 p (including a fourteen page appendix outlining the intricacies of baseball.)

 Polar City Blues cover

The start of this wasn’t very encouraging. Police chief Al Bates is called into a murder scene where the victim – an off-world diplomat – has had his throat cut from ear to ear. I know this novel is from 1992 but the thought of another crime/SF mash-up was oddly dispiriting. Yet it turned out to be readable enough despite Chief Bates, while popping up from time to time throughout, not being the book’s main focus, and that because it doesn’t really have one.

Jack Mulligan, a semi-pro baseball player with psionic abilities, comes across the murder site and offers his services to the police but he encounters a very powerful and debilitating psychic block, presumably emanating from the murderer. In the aftermath various other people, potential witnesses, though the killer has left no obvious traces of himself, are found slaughtered in the same way.

Mulligan’s not even nascent relationship with a woman called Lacey, whose occupation is somewhat obscure but seems to be on the border of illegality, is the subject of an attempt by Kerr to round out her characters but the representation verges on the adolescent. Also in the mix is a flesh-eating disease caused by a bacterium picked up in an unsalubrious area known as the Rat Yard, a disease whose main side effect is it causes its victims to smell strongly of vinegar and which the murderer has contracted.

The characters here – barring an AI and the brief conversations held via psychic means – all speak in a stripped down English known as Merrkan which in an Author’s Note Kerr says is a future projection of (perhaps even thinner than) how people in the US Sunbelt converse already. In addition, the inhabitants of Polar City all have a seemingly inveterate interest in baseball, which, to a Brit, comes across as just weird. I know it’s the national game of the US but, come on, imagine a British SF novel which featured cricket, for example. It’s not going to happen.

The story here is really all over the place, the murders are resolved about three-quarters of the way through and then the tale morphs into an interplanetary (or interspaceship) chase sequence dealing with a First Contact scenario. Okay, the aliens were the source of the bacterium but it’s still a jarring shift of emphasis.

The blurb – from Locus – on the book’s front cover claims Polar City Blues is, “A Hell of a lot of fun.” Fun? Multiple gruesome murders, and it is fun? There are humorous moments but these mainly involve miscommunications.

Overall Polar City Blues is inconsequential. I doubt I’ll bother with any more from Kerr.

Pedant’s corner:- “At the bar are a scattering” (At the bar is a scattering,) “A couple … cavort in a fountain” (a couple cavorts,) passage way (passageway,) “there are a number of” (there is a number of,) “that Outworld bacteria” (bacterium,) “for a-ways” (it was over a line break but it still ought to be ‘a ways’.) Cajones (that Spanish word is spelled ‘cojones’,) jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) “the occasional pair of Hoppers bounce along” (a pair bounces,) a military captain refers to as Mr Lacey. (Lacey is a woman,) “it takes both of their concentration” (both of their concentrations.)

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