Review: Three A.M., by Steven John

>>To be published: March 2012

I had been twenty-eight the last time I saw the sun. Fifteen years ago. And that had just been a chance parting in the mist. It took months for it to go from clear to hazy to socked in. I was so used to it that it rarely occurred to me just how different things were. But those first days—those had been horrible times. Everyone gripped by a sense of despair. Suicides ran rampant. Fear was everywhere. As the sickness spread and they started shutting down cities, quarantining us by the thousands, the fog started in and changed everything. Fucked everything up.


Thomas Vale, ex-military turned halfhearted private investigator, is trapped. A decade and a half earlier, an undefined disease began laying waste to the world outside his city. As a thick, mood-setting fog rolled in, the city found its self inexplicably protected, an island world in a sea of disaster.

Like all good noir, Steven John’s Three A.M. starts with a dame in a bar and a fifty thousand dollar murder mystery. With a running count of only 304 pages, it doesn’t take long for the story to spiral into corporate conspiracy, wrongful imprisonment, and unexpected sexual encounters as Vale attempts to discover who killed Samuel Ayers and why, and to understand the origin of the fog that has enveloped his city.

Three A.M. has a lot going for it in the beginning: a good (albeit somewhat clichéd) noir tone—with whisky, smokes, and shakedowns everywhere you turn; and interesting science fiction mystery that Dark City’s up the atmosphere in some pretty explicit ways; well dressed mystery men stalking up and down all too vacant city streets. Not to mention the character of Vale, who’s not without his fair share of one liners and comic assholery.

As fantastic as that all sounds, about two-thirds of the way through I hucked the book across the room and didn’t get back to it for a solid hour. I can forgive a lot of ridiculous things, providing a book and its characters have a tight enough hold on me. I’m the first in line to give props to a book that tries its best but just doesn’t seem to stick the landing. However, character assassination and tonal destruction, those aren’t such simple things to overlook.

Now, I’m going to dive into some pretty specific spoiler territory here, so if you’re still interested in picking up Three A.M., I would probably stop reading.

Still with me? Fantabulous.

Just past the book’s middle, some fairly significant events happen. We discover things aren’t so cut and dry, and what at first seemed like a pseudo-noir take on the zombie genre—with the infected and diseased swarming the world outside the fog-protected city—is quickly overturned and exposed as a massive wool-over-the-eyes-of-the-world operation. To protect the people in the city from a truth that they would surely not be able to handle (which is a nice way of saying that the kids have lied themselves into a corner, and would rather keep lying than admit to mom and dad who really broke the window with the baseball… yes, I know it’s a stretch of a metaphor—let me have this). In discovering this, Vale is set up to be the fall guy in the case of who killed Samuel Ayers… except that, given certain revelations, no one would seemingly miss Ayers because the project he was working on was so secretive and important, yet all his contacts seem confined within the operation surrounding this city—and no one would really miss Vale, given that the city exists off the map, out of, well, any other jurisdiction in the world. It may as well not exist, and the same goes for him and the unfortunate deceased. So the depths of this plan to frame Vale for this murder strikes a hollow chord… because it doesn’t really matter to anyone but Ayers’ family that Ayers is dead, and his family has already been targeted by those in control. In other words, there seems to be little purpose to the frame job at the climax of the tale, except as a convenient way to reveal to Vale things he never could have known otherwise.

All that’s fine—it’s a hiccup on the road, but it doesn’t derail the novel. No, what takes Three A.M. out behind the woodshed with a rusty shovel and no remorse is the following:

They drew ever nearer. Had to be six, seven choppers at least. Big birds. The forest thundered with their roaring blades. Then, a few hundred yards off, powerful shafts of light pierced the canopy above and began to streak the forest floor. Rebecca screamed and threw her arms around my neck. Her voice was carried away as the rotor wash began to stir the air around us. Three and then four different beams strafed the forest, and I caught glimpses of still others far off to the sides. The howl became deafening. The lights were scarcely a hundred yards away, bouncing around among the trees, illuminating the night.

I looked down into her eyes and saw not fear but a great sadness and resignation. She pulled my ear down to her mouth and called out above the din, “I’m so sorry, Tom. I’m so sorry.”

I looked at her, holding her cheeks between my hands and shook my head. Then I pressed my lips to hers and her mouth opened eagerly. Her hands were on my back, my thighs, my ass, and then up my shirt. She peeled off my jacket and then pulled her own sweater over her head.

What follows is some explicit, awkward, forest-floor sex, chased almost immediately by a complete disregard for the book’s established tone—and the tone of the characters, for that matter—as Vale’s inner monologue goes from borderline hard-ass wisecracking PI to puppy love with a woman he barely knows. And, oh yeah, they decide to get it on, in a forest, while loud, threatening helicopters are combing the ground for them—ostensibly, so they can kill them several times over. Because when your life is threatened and you’re hiding from giant, sweeping beams of light and helicopters loaded with weapon-toting commandos—when staying low to the ground, not moving, and not making sounds are probably in your best interests—it’s probably not a good idea to get your fuck on.

Oh, and it ends with: “Will you stay in me for a while?” Again, while lying on the forest floor, and not at all fearing for their lives. Which makes them either incredibly cocky, or rock-solid stupid. I haven’t decided yet.

Steven John isn’t a bad writer. For a first-time author, he’s got some decent chops for humour and I really dug the setting of Three A.M. But the degree to which the story and characters fall apart post-mid book revelation make it impossible for me to give this title a pass. I’d like to see him take another stab at the genre, but with a clearer sense of tone and purpose.


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