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Book cover art by Mark Smollin.
Review © 1998 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Patricia Anthony's novels may seem too quirky and slipstream for SF traditionalists. Hell, they are. But it's undeniable that Ms. Anthony has breathed much fresh air into this staid, series-obsessed genre in the short period of time she has been writing professionally, and prolifically.

Happy Policeman is a startling book, a thoroughly wild commingling of several of SF's most common themes: alien invasion, nuclear war and the social dynamics thereof, even mystery. It isn't quite as original as it seems. I often found myself reminded of the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," and the tale's complex multicharacter melodrama made me think that Happy Policeman might well be the sort of contemporary American Gothic novel Stephen King has been trying to write all his career. But the ability to bring genuine freshness to well weathered tropes is an impressive skill all its own, and the tale is astoundingly unpredictable.

Ms. Anthony's imagination runs riot in a story involving the small town of Toomey, Texas, which has been encased in a wall of energy called the Line by a curious alien race known as the Torku. The Torku appeared as if by magic as the citizens of Toomey emerged from their cellars following Bomb Day. They seem entirely benevolent. They provide the citizens of Toomey with every creature comfort they could possibly want. But you can only keep people penned in for so long before the barely submerged tensions break free, don't you know. And it remains significant that no one really knows where the hell the Torku came from or what they want.

When a woman is found murdered in the woods surrounding the town, police chief DeWitt Dawson finds himself confronted with a rat's nest of possible suspects and motives. His partner Bo is patently convinced the Torku did it. DeWitt finds himself suspecting his wife and an old high school rival of his with whom he believes she is having an affair. And then there are the dead woman's missing children, bullies whom no one in the town liked, and the puzzling mystery of the well behind the woman's house. And why have the Torku disintegrated the house so quickly after the woman's death? Add to this a local evangelist who has decided to lead a violent revolt against the Torku, and DeWitt has his hands full.

Because of its brisk pace, this is one of those mystery yarns where you'll miss something important if you blink. Tonally, it jumps all over the place, from humor to suspense to strange alien eerieness and back again. This coupled with such a convoluted plot could well leave several readers scratching their heads. But the demanding narrative flows logically, and many scenes, particularly toward the end, have considerable dramatic power.

Ultimately, Happy Policeman is about just that, a study of human happiness. As one of the alien Torku tells DeWitt, when you choose what to eat for breakfast you alter the universe. In other words, what simple little unpredictable factors in life could crop up to throw a happy existence into one out of kilter? And is our happiness merely in our outlook on life, as the Torku seem to think, or is it as a direct result of our actions? The point is driven home most effectively in a courtroom scene in the novel's final third, when, once it seems the murder has been solved, justice is meted out...or is it? Does the punishment really restore order and contentment, or does it simply pile senseless tragedy upon senseless tragedy? As in Cold Allies, Ms. Anthony's use of unexplained aliens who serve as microscopes under which we can study ourselves proves to be a thoroughly disarming narrative device. The novel's main question is not who are the Torku, it's Who are we? Ms. Anthony doesn't give us any easy answers in this Rubik's Cube of a book, but then, neither does life itself, does it?