Spademan used to be a garbage collector in New York City. But all that changed when a dirty bomb tore through Times Square, ripping the core out of the city, emptying it of the living and filling it with the dead, among them Spademan’s wife. The poorest with nowhere to go live in the streets that others risk only with a geiger counter in their hands. A few of the wealthy have stayed behind in almost empty luxury apartment blocks, withdrawn into the limnosphere, a virtual reality, safe in their beds, dreaming, fed by drips, cared for by nurses, surely the largest group of any people who choose to stay and make a living in this wreck of a city. Spademan has stayed, too. He still picks up the trash but now it is human. Spademan is a hitman and he will calmly kill any man or woman above the age of 18 – he doesn’t discriminate, anyone could be his. All it takes is just one phonecall.
On this particular day, Spademan receives instructions to kill the runaway daughter of an evangelist. The death caller is none other than the girl’s own father. On the chase, Spademan pays a visit to the girl’s uncle with whom, he learns, she had sought sanctuary but he, reluctantly woken from his virtual reality dreams, had turned her over to two other demons, also set on her trail. As Spademan uncovers the true depravity of this girl’s family, the killer learns that the Times Square dirty bomb might not have destroyed his humanity entirely after all. Leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, Spademan takes on a new mission of his own.
Shovel Ready is an unusual book. Short, snappy and sharp, just like its first person narration by Spademan, the novel presents a quirky mix of crime-noir and science fiction. The sentences are brief, there are no quotation marks, the pages whip through the fingers. Spademan’s mood is dark and as we see more of the damage suffered by New York City and its inhabitants it’s not hard to see why.
For me, my favourite part of the novel was this vivid visualisation of a near-future New York City, destroyed by bombs and now haunted by the poor, the desperate, the evil or the sleeping rich. Future technology, especially that which creates the limnosphere, clashes with the misery on the streets and, because we learn so little about how life is going on outside the city, it feels as if we are trapped on an island, cut off from the world. But despite this isolation there is a strong sense that the planet is in trouble.
The crime element of the novel is bloody and shocking. The corruption of the limnosphere, the evil of the evangelists and the sheer nastiness of some towards their own relatives is brutal. Spademan is relentless and this does risk him turning into a completely unsympathetic character but, for me, he is saved from this by his memories of the dirty bomb, memories which move more frequently through the novel as it continues. I can’t say that I ever really liked Spademan, and the style did take a little getting used to, but I was fascinated by the world he lives in and the people he moves among.
Shovel Ready is a fast, urgent read with its vivid worldbuilding matched by an intriguing and unusual central figure. Spademan will return in January in Near Enemy and I’m intrigued to discover what lies in store for him and for us.