I couldn't stand KOP for about its first two chapters. Then I grew to like it, and then to love it. I had to cross two major hurdles before I could fully appreciate this future-noir crime saga. I'll discuss the first now, and the second at the end of the review.
You know what a "Bat Durston" story is? For those who said no, the short version: a Bat Durston story is one in which the clichés and stock characters of one genre's formula (say, westerns or crime) are easily ported over into another genre (say, SF) simply by changing the art direction. The term was coined by H. L. Gold, who edited the venerable magazine Galaxy in the 1950's. On each issue's back cover, Gold would offer hilarious examples of the Bat Durston story as the kind of thing he would never deign to publish in his magazine's august pages. In one paragraph, stalwart cowboy Bat Durston would be trotting through the sagebrush on his trusty mare, when he would be waylaid by bandidos/injuns. The following paragraph would simply rewrite the first one, except this time, Bat Durston was an astronaut, his horse a hovercycle or something, his six-shooter a raygun, the Arizona desert would morph into the sands of Mars, and the injuns would sprout antennae and become hissing aliens.
Gold's message to aspiring SF writers was plain. Bat Durston stories — simply taking the tropes of one genre and sticking them into a pulp SF setting — were unimaginative, lazy-ass writing, and he was having none of it. Good thing Gold didn't live to read KOP, just about the battiest Bat Durston story to hit the racks in living memory. Hammond charges into his debut novel grabbing every crime fiction cliché he can by the waistband and holding them upside down to shake out their pockets. We are introduced to Juno Mozambe, an aging, embittered vice squad detective from the Koba Office of Police (get it?), on the swampy, economically depressed colony world of Lagarto. He's got a reputation as a hothead who uses his fists for results more than his brains. But when his former partner, now police chief, asks him to come back to homicide to solve a murder that seems mundane — but which the chief thinks might have links all the way to the top of Koba's government — Juno grudgingly agrees. But there's bad news. Juno is being stuck with a partner. Hell no, says Juno, I work alone. Worse yet, this partner is both a rookie and a woman!
See why I was sneering at first? Isn't this the opening scene of a zillion dodgy cop shows and movies? Take away the otherworldly setting, and KOP's premise could be that of any Bruce Willis movie, any TV crime pilot, any Jim Thompson novel. As Hammond lists Thompson as one of his influences, the latter isn't surprising.
So how did KOP win me over? Simply by spinning a badass little mystery/thriller that kept me as glued to my chair as any of the best crime fiction should. Once we're past the hackneyed setup, Hammond keeps his story crisply paced, doggedly unpredictable, and as bone-crunchingly violent as it needs to be when it needs to be. There are traces here of L.A. Confidential, Se7en, The Silence of the Lambs, and just about any other piece of popular crime fiction to hit the shelves or the screens in the past several years. As in the stories that influenced it — the works of Hammett and Chandler also come to mind — KOP is full of characters who are not merely morally ambiguous but barely a hair's breadth away from one another in the extent of their moral corruption, whether hero or villain. Underlying the story is the theme that the worst crime is bred by poverty, and the majority of crimes not motivated by evil but by decent people simply driven to desperation. Their economy literally in the toilet, the citizens of Lagarto do what they must to survive, whether it's humiliating themselves to the offworld tourists who come down to flaunt their wealth and sense of smug superiority, or simply by being on the take. And in KOP, everybody is on the take.
Naturally, Juno is the jaded and compromised weary veteran while his new partner Maggie Orzo is young and idealistic, eager to clean up Koba and KOP by sheer dint of her ethical rectitude. (Though one wonders how, raised in a place like Koba, anyone develops ideals.) But first there's a murder to solve. A young military officer has been slit up a treat while leaving a popular brothel. But what looks like a simple back-alley murder by a fetishistic psycho (the killer has gone home with his victim's lips) begins shaping up into a vast and labyrinthine conspiracy involving members of Lagarto's two rival crime families, and a power grab possibly involving the mayor's office itself.
Though he busts quite a few heads (if you're not into serious violence, steer clear of this book), Juno grows into a sympathetic hero/antihero who manages to skirt the Joseph Wambaugh stereotype the more Hammond develops him. We're treated to some backstory in which we get a hint of what makes him tick. And these scenes, far from crashing the story's forward momentum into a wall (as flashbacks often do), propel the main narrative and, at one point, include a stunningly suspenseful scene involving an incriminating soda bottle. Juno's relationship to his young and eager (but not quite such a naïf as you might think) partner builds believably as well. An unavoidable older man/younger woman sexual tension is handled realistically, and the characters' friendship is allowed to settle into a satisfying place of mutual respect.
Often Juno must weigh the long-term results of a decision against the greater good, and he'll do something rather shocking to achieve his goals. Commendably, Hammond never has Juno try to justify himself. Juno knows he's tainted, but he wants to make both his life and life on Lagarto better overall, and with the system as broken as it is, none of it will be an easy or painless process. Juno doesn't like what's he's become or what he has to do much of the time. But he doesn't pretend either.
Now, I mentioned a second hurdle I had to cross before becoming a KOP-lover, so here it is. Hammond, perhaps in an attempt to reduce the Bat Durstonishness of his story and make it more SFnal, sets everything unbelievably far in the future. KOP is set in the late 28th century, a boggling 780 years away. And yet, human society seems to have undergone no cultural evolution. Everything is very 20th century noir here. Lowlifes still hang out in the usual grungy bars, crimelords still shake them down for protection money, cab drivers still drive rickety old cabs with plastic Virgin Marys on the dash, forensic science seems to have come to a standstill, and — well, you see what I mean. Sorry, but 780 years is a long goddamn time, and I suspect human society then (if there still is one) will be as alien to us as going back in the past 780 years would be as well. Go back 780 years from this writing, and we're in 1227, a year in which Wikipedia informs me Genghis Khan died and Gregory IX became Pope. I think the world is a much different place now than it was then, and I suspect, even on an offworld colony, people won't be living in 2787 the way they do now. Seriously, with just cosmetic changes KOP could be set in present-day Miami. H. L. Gold would not be amused.
Allow yourself to indulge Hammond by crossing these hurdles, and you'll find a riveting writer who rivets you with a riveting story. If you like a mean, no-bullshit cop story, then this is a KOP you oughta call. If Hammond failed to apprehend an audience, it'd be a crime.