BOOK CLUB

Genevieve Cog­man cel­e­brates a tale of Elves and gang­sters

SFX - - Contents - By John M Ford, 2000

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.

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