There are not many authors whose books (or novellas, in this case) I automatically buy. Alex Hughes is one of them.
I was hooked on this series from the first book, and Fluid carries on the series just as well as I was expecting. The growth of the ebook has had the interesting side-effect of making novellas commercially viable again, so we get to see characters in shorter, more focused situations. This is not to say that Ms Hughes’ writing is habitually less than focused – it’s not – but when you’ve only got 72 pages to play with, you have to get pretty streamlined.
In this novella, we see Adam working with Detective Freeman following the events of Vacant. Anyone who’s read the blurb knows there’s political stuff (dirty cops, being investigated by the murder victim, before he got a bad case of dead). What’s interesting is what Hughes does with it. It’s not so much a murder-mystery as an ethical vignette. Does a victim who was a less than perfect human being still deserve justice? And if not, why don’t we all pack up and go home because who’s perfect? Does the end justify the means? And what is justice anyway? And is justice infinite or is there anyone a certain amount to go round, and therefore it should be doled out where it will do the most good? And whose good are we talking about here anyway? Who has the right to choose?
**If you’re sensitive to spoilers, stop reading here!**
Another interesting thing about this story, and possibly why it’s a novella rather than a full-length book, is that it doesn’t have a happy, tidy, satisfying answer. Good-triumphs-over-evil is a big staple of detective stories: Dorothy L. Sayers even has her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, say (about Harriet Vane, detective novelist accused of murder, whom Peter eventually marries):
“Damn it, she writes detective stories, and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”
In Fluid, virtue is not triumphant; justice is not achieved. The murderer gets away with it, although the implication is that the dirty policemen (at least some of them) get caught. Adam is left to ponder a situation where a man is dead, and nobody seems to care: politics has won out over justice. And, very personally for Adam, part of the reason nobody seems to care is that the man was an alcoholic – a drug addict. Not terribly dissimilar from Adam himself in a lot of ways.
Fluid is therefore also about the way we dehumanise people whom we perceive as worth less than ourselves: the poor, the homeless, the addicts – and, at the moment – the refugees. We tell ourselves that if they get hurt, or killed, they deserve it. They brought it on themselves. Or at the very least, it was bound to happen because of the way they chose to live. After all, if they just pulled their socks up, tried a bit harder, they wouldn’t be in the fix they’re in. We don’t have to be sympathetic, we don’t have to treat them the way we’d like to be treated, and they certainly don’t deserve the good things that we deserve, like justice.
Justice is for people like us, not people like them.
In Fluid, Adam gets his face rubbed in that us-and-them attitude, and I wonder how Hughes will take this forward. Will the next full-length book in the Mindspace Investigations series be darker, more ambiguous? Or will Hughes carry on with the detective story in Wimseyesque form, showcasing justice because we need to believe that justice exists for someone, somewhere – even if it’s only in fiction.