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Book cover art by Jim Burns and James Wang.
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Here's a fun one. Roger MacBride Allen kicks up his heels and delivers the first volume in a new series combining old-school space opera, the buddy cop story, and classic drawing-room murder mystery. Think Poul Anderson meets Agatha Christie by way of Dragnet. Despite the series' title, which evokes associations with a very popular current TV show, there's not much in the way of a hard-SFnal approach to topics like forensics or criminology. Allen goes the traditional whodunnit route, marrying it to equally traditional skiffy with solidly entertaining results.

Veteran readers of the whodunnit probably won't have a hard time guessing the killer, and readers with stacks of space opera under their belts will find some nits to pick, particularly in the story's early scenes. But the pleasure of The Cause of Death comes from what originality Allen does bring to the table. He's shown a lot of imagination and wit in developing his alien races and their cultures, and those elements lend many clever twists to the whodunnit template from which he's working.

In Allen's future, space is literally teeming with advanced alien civilizations; humanity is considered one of the "young" races. The Bureau of Special Investigations has been set up by Earth's government to police human activity amongst all these alien cultures. Their efficacy is hampered by bureaucratic incompetence and budgetary shortfalls, so much so that their agents don't even work with partners but are forced to undertake investigations alone. The high K.I.A. rate of BSI agents in the field is hurting recruitment efforts. One might think it's a little unbelievable that any government would treat such an important body dedicated to public safety with this much insouciance. But then all you need to do is remember two little words — "Katrina" and "FEMA" — to realize that, yes, governments can be devastatingly inept in protecting their citizens at the most basic level.

Despite limited resources, BSI is starting to partner some of their agents. Special Agents Hannah Wolfson and rookie Jamie Mendez are dispatched to the planet Reqwar following a cryptic and possibly mistranslated request by that world's government. Reqwar has been colonized by the Pavlat, a humanoid species. Specifically, these colonists are Pavlat who have broken away from their native world in protest over the direction its culture is taking. The Reqwar Pavlat insist on returning to the old ways, which largely involve rejecting most modern technologies and adhering to a bewildering and anal retentive set of old laws governing things like inheritance, class, family and gender roles. But the Reqwar Pavlat need help in keeping their colony alive, due to the way the planet was bioengineered to accommodate the colony in the first place. Towards that end they're getting help from a human family and a couple of bizarre aliens called the Stannlar. It's the human — Georg Hertzmann — who's in trouble.

Wolfson and Mendez think they're off to supervise a routine prisoner transfer. When they are nearly shot out of the sky on their approach to Reqwar, they realize there's more going on than they imagined. To cut to the chase, the colony is on the brink of civil war between its ruler, the Thelm, and his chief rival, the High Thelek, over the Thelm's succession. Furthermore, the High Thelek is being manipulated by the Kendari, an unfriendly-to-humans species who'd like very much to take Reqwar over. It isn't long before the Thelm winds up dead in his private chambers under suspicious circumstances, and with no end of suspects. The political fallout from the murder will indeed seal the fate of the whole planet. But if Georg is the killer, has a crime really been committed, especially since, for reasons I'll let you discover for yourself, he is actually required by law to kill the Thelm?

Allen shows his allegiance to the classic murder mysteries that have inspired him in such charming details as naming the BSI ship after a character from Agatha Christie. The plot itself owes the most appealing aspects of its complexity to the way Allen has imagined the Pavlat culture. This is a race of aliens with so many ludicrously detailed and specific laws it's a wonder they can get anything done. The intricacies of those laws play a large part in solving the Thelm's murder — if indeed it even is a murder. Moreover, Allen makes some worthwhile thematic points about such things as goodwill organizations, and to what degree their ideologies are informed by genuine altruism or simple self-righteousness. Georg and his family belong to a pacifist group who, Wolfson points out, only have the luxury to take the moral high ground of non-violence because they know they're under the protection of institutions like BSI, which take no such moralistic stance.

If this series could stand to improve in any department, I'd say that both Wolfson and Mendez need more development to become stronger leads. They have a rather generic Anycop quality that causes them to be overshadowed in almost every scene by the alien characters, who are without exception immeasurably more colorful. The great mysteries Allen is paying homage to here all have unforgettable heroes who have left their marks on literature — Poirot, Miss Marple, Holmes and Watson, Lord Peter Wimsey. Cripes, even such TV sleuths as Colombo or Jim Rockford are more memorable. Wolfson and Mendez have a long way to go before they become SF's answer to pop culture's great crime solvers.

But as a maiden effort, The Cause of Death is fast-paced reading, with a nicely twisted mystery plot that had me engrossed, and a smartly imagined and refreshingly old-fashioned SF setting for it all to unravel in. It's elementary — I'll be back for the next episode.

Followed by Death Sentence.