Title: The Spare Man
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: October 11, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She’s traveling incognito and is reveling in her anonymity. Then someone is murdered and the festering chowderheads who run security have the audacity to arrest her spouse. Armed with banter, martinis and her small service dog, Tesla is determined to solve the crime so that the newlyweds can get back to canoodling—and keep the real killer from striking again.
It’s always a treat when a favorite author releases a new book, and even more so when it turns out to be exactly the book I needed!
While I treated myself to a signed copy of The Spare Man (and the assorted goodies that came with it) AND watched an excellent online author talk, both several months ago, it wasn’t until this quiet week between Christmas and New Year that I finally dedicated some time to cuddle up and enjoy the book.
I’m happy to say that (a) it was well worth the wait! and (b) the mix of humor, a cute dog, a tricksy murder plot, space travel, and cocktail was just what I needed.
A brief aside: The fate of fictional doggos can be really stressful for readers, so let me just start by saying that GIMLET IS THE BEST and that Gimlet is perfectly fine from start to finish. No dog trauma to worry about!!
Back to the book:
The plot centers around Tesla Crane and her new husband Shal Steward, two madly-in-love newlyweds who just want to canoodle in their luxury suite aboard the ISS Lindgren on their cruise to Mars. Tesla is a world-famous, insanely rich inventor/roboticist, and Shal is a retired detective who’s mad about his spouse.
The couple is accompanied by Gimlet, the world’s cutest Westie. Gimlet is not only supremely adorable, but also key to Tesla’s ability to cope and function: Tesla is dealing with severe pain and physical challenges stemming from a terrible accident that left her with spinal injuries and PTSD, and Gimlet is her magnificent service dog. (Yes, I’m raving a lot about Gimlet — you will too, once you meet her!)
Even on-duty, Gimlet was fully aware that she was, indeed, the most adorable and worthy creature ever assembled by nature or laboratory. Her tail was generating its own electrical current of delight.
Unfortunately, Tesla and Shal’s romantic adventure is interrupted almost immediately by a murder. Inconveniently for the continuation of their honeymoon bliss, being first on the scene at a stabbing also makes them prime subjects. Soon, the couple is caught up in nasty handling by the ship’s security team, forced isolation, ongoing suspicion, and (gasp) interference with their expensive luxury gin of choice.
When Shal is detained as a prime suspect, what’s Tesla to do but start an investigation of her own? With complications such as look-alike bartenders, high-profile magicians, competing robotics entrepreneurs, and more, the quest to uncover the truth and exonerate Shal takes nonstop twists and turns, complicated by the strange effects of space travel, centrifugal force, lagged communications, and more.
The plot is complicated, but the heavier moments focusing on Tesla’s past trauma and her ongoing pain and flashbacks are lightened by healthy doses of banter and doggo cuteness. Each chapter starts with a cocktail recipe — some classics, some invented just for this book — all of which make me want to take up mixology as a hobby.
The Spare Man handles gender, racial, and ability diversity very well, never in a preachy way, but with a matter-of-fact approach that keeps the focus on the story while also portraying a future in which inclusion is just a given.
There’s quite a bit of humor in the book, from Tesla’s long-distance, time-lagged calls with her crochet-loving, insult-spraying lawyer to her descriptions of various characters (my favorite being the huge security officer described as the “wall of Bob”).
Tesla and Shal have terrific chemistry — love and passion, intellectual sparring, deep connection, and unmatchable cleverness. I did wish we’d learned more about their background as a couple — how they met, fell in love, got married — but even without that background, it’s easy to love seeing them together and enjoy the hell out of their interactions.
The murder-mystery plot is convoluted but lots of fun, with plenty of red herrings and distractions, quirky characters and suspects, and some bonkers complications that arise from setting what is essentially a closed-circle mystery onboard an interplanetary cruise ship.
(Note: For more on some key types of mysteries, see this reference or this explanation of the difference between a locked-room mystery and a closed-circle mystery.)
I’ve heard the author (and others) refer to this book as “The Thin Man in space”. Never having read the Thin Man books or seen any of the movies, this comparison doesn’t do a whole lot for me — but after checking out a few quick video clips, I can see how people who appreciate The Thin Man might really find The Spare Man a hoot. But even without this element, the book absolutely worked for me.
All in all, I adored The Spare Man. Murder, quippy dialogue, space travel, and an amazing dog — who could ask for more?