Chris Brookmyre raised eyebrows when he revealed his latest novel was set in space, but Places in the Darkness doesn’t disappoint. In the prologue, the effects of zero gravity offering him the chance for yet another opening that sears itself on to the reader’s mind, as he introduces what is essentially a sophisticated locked room mystery. He then gets down to introducing his brave new world - Ciudad de Cielo, the “City In The Sky”, where scientists and engineers live and work on the edge of the Earth’s orbit, building the ship that will eventually take humanity out into the stars.
Our first companion is Alice Blake, a government representative on her first journey to CdC from Earth, and the reader shares her disorientation at being bombarded with new information and sensations. Just as we’ve sized up Alice, and concluded that she is exact and law-abiding to the point of prissiness, we meet Nikki Fixx, in the throes of an almighty hangover. A cop, she is tasked with investigating the CdC’s first murder - and yes, she’s forced to work with Alice, in buddy-cop film style.
Brookmyre takes delight in his role as the creator of CdC - its gleaming labs and promise of a better humanity; its scuzzy bars and illicit herbs - and the novel lives up to his description of it as “space noir” as our patience with the sci-fi set-up is rewarded with a crime plot heavy on misinformation and misdirection.
The space setting ebbs and flows, but the neuroscience thread is integral to the plot, and in the final part of the book the questions of what is real and what makes us who we are come in for nano-level examination as Nikki and Alice unravel the mystery.
Good writers push themselves in new directions, though it’s a brave move - there is no guarantee the audience will follow. But Places In The Darkness is an ingenious crime story with plenty of relevance to today’s world, and Brookmyre has crafted CdC as carefully as his characters. Whether readers embrace the book will come down to how much they want to embrace the sci-fi setting.