Genevieve Cogman celebrates a tale of Elves and gangsters
KB Wagers celebrates the Elves and gangsters of John M Ford’s The Last Hot Time.
“No. Wait. Hold it. I am a journalist, Doc. Anything you tell me is liable to wind up on the opinion pages of a hundred and twenty-seven newspapers syndicated through Global. If you give me your trust, I will value it, I will brood over my ethics, I will agonize, and I will use your secrets, just to get through one more column.”
One of the things frequently said about John M Ford is that he was a writer impossible to categorise. He was a game designer and poet, he produced works from alternate historical fantasy (The Dragon Waiting) to science fiction (Web Of Angels, Growing Up Weightless) to a Cold War spy novel involving Elizabethan drama (The Scholars Of Night), and two standout Star Trek novels which helped redefine their subjects (Klingons, in The Final Reflection) and mock them in the most affectionate of ways (the regular crew, in How Much For Just The Planet). His poem “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station” won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 1989.
He was a brilliant writer. He was not necessarily an easy read. A quote from him: “There are people who believe in an absolutely transparent prose; with every respect for clarity of expression, I don’t.” He can be read on several levels at once; both the surface description, which is fluid and elegant, and the level beneath it, with what is actually going on in the scene. I have always thought he expected the reader to make that effort. It was always worth it.
One of my favourite books is his last novel, The Last Hot Time. It is set in an America where Elves have returned, from some other dimension or place, and a fragile detente has been established. The time frame is unclear: most of the story takes place in the Levee, a half-broken area of Chicago on the borders of Elfland. Television used to exist, 30 or 40 years ago; it doesn’t anymore. There is a reference to “where the nuclear reactor was”, before the Elves returned: it’s not there anymore. Cars and motorbikes in the Levee run on dual-tech magic and gas. The gangsters use Tommy guns. Double-breasted suits are worn: films in the cinemas are in black and white, partly as a concession to the Elves, who don’t see colour in the same way that humans do.
Our hero – definitely a hero, not just a protagonist – is a young paramedic, just 19, who finds his way to the Levee and ends up working for Patrise, the main boss there. Patrise is somewhere between a crime lord and a major force of social stability, belonging to the Shadow Cabinet – a mysterious group only ever vaguely referred to, that is apparently keeping the balance between humans and Elves. It’s a coming-of-age story and a romance. It’s also a story about gangsters, and reporters, and the cops, and a world that was nearly broken when the Elves returned, where both sides are trying to avoid any further disasters. And there’s sex, too.
But ultimately I read The Last Hot Time as a story about power and responsibility. (John M Ford’s novels always have more to offer, and different things to each reader.) It’s about power and duty and trust on every scale, from boss to liegeman, reporter to readers, doctor to patients, between lovers, and from people who have the power to help towards the people who need to be helped.
The novel is short, but is perfectly sufficient. The reader would like to know what happens next, but the end is satisfying. Ford’s prose is clear and his ear for dialogue is magnificent. This is one of those books that I press on friends and family because it is just so good. But it’s also timeless; beyond the trappings of mobster Chicago, fast cars, Tommy guns and dancing, it is a coherent and lasting story of power, growth and personal choice.
Genevieve Cogman’s new novel The Lost Plot is out 14 December from Pan Macmillan.