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'The Big Sheep' Plays Hardboiled Sci-Fi To The Hilt

It's not hard to parse the two main influences on Robert Kroese's new novel The Big Sheep. The title itself mashes them up: Raymond Chandler's 1939 hardboiled masterpiece The Big Sleep and Philip K. Dick's 1968 post-apocalyptic classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis of the film Blade Runner). The question is: Does Kroese's book transcend the obviousness of that literary portmanteau? Thankfully, yes. While Kroese draws deeply from Chandler's gritty atmosphere and Dick's gonzo concepts, he adds his own third dimension — humor, and plenty of it.

The Big Sheep takes place in a near-future Los Angeles, following an economic collapse that's fractured the area into the city proper and a section known as the Disincorporated Zone, or DZ, that's reverted to barbarism (with a tip of the hat to John Carpenter's Escape from L.A.) In this brave new city, two detectives, Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler, are hired to solve the mystery of a missing sheep, genetically modified to incubate human organs for transplant. Soon after, the pair get another job: In this increasingly entertainment-reliant version of our world, a superstar actress named Priya Mistry fears she's the target of an assassin.

As the two investigations dovetail — a bit too predictably, but not without some finesse; Kroese weaves plots like a master — the tribal politics of the DZ boils to the surface. An over-the-top, would-be warlord who calls himself Mag-Lev is trying to seize power, and it's causing a ripple effect that threatens to upend Keane and Fowler's cases. Meanwhile, the mega-conglomerate Flagship Media exerts its own gravity on the investigation — all while Keane guards a secret past and Fowler is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend Gwen.

While Kroese draws deeply from Chandler's gritty atmosphere and Dick's gonzo concepts, he adds his own third dimension — humor, and plenty of it.

Kroese's story is intricate, and his pace is refreshingly relentless, but what really carries The Big Sheep is the laughs. Clever, wry, and not above a little groan-inducing wordplay of the very best kind, the book's humor not only keeps the mood light, it cements Keane and Fowler's characters. Their dialogue is pistol-whip sharp, and it quickly becomes clear that Kroese is pulling from a third major influence: Arthur Conan Doyle. The dynamic between the mad-genius Keane and the no-nonsense Fowler is pure Holmes-and-Watson, right down to Fowler's first-person narration. In one of the novel's driest understatements, Fowler calls his boss "an unconventional thinker"; Keane prefers the term "phenomenological inquisitor" over the mundane "private investigator," and the philosophical ruminations fly fast and furiously. And funnily. At one point, Fowler — in the grips of a villain — remarks, "It was never a good thing when a bad guy started quoting Nietzsche."

There's no doubt that Kroese pays loving homage to his influences, but there's a spark to The Big Sheep that transcends them. Even when the word "sheep" from the book's title winds up assuming a multiple meaning that's a little heavy-handed, Kroese handles it with a wink and plenty of wit, poking America's obsession with celebrity with a pointed, satirical stick. Dystopian novels these days continue to be pumped out faster than greenhouse gases, but The Big Sheep offers a welcome break: a tale of our miserable tomorrow that's simultaneously sobering and fun.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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