Chris Morton is a writer with a certain pedigree, having been shortlisted for a Guardian award, this story is his third novel and his first in science-fiction.
It tells the story of a man (Maggie Flycatcher) who has almost certainly the most boring job in history: he's a lemon tree supervisor. The creative talent that can come up with such a pointless job is one that deserves some recognition, so it instantly grabbed my attention. Flycatcher's life takes a turn for the better (he thinks) when he gets recruited as (unlikely as it seems) one of Earth's best test pilots, putting a new class of spaceship through its paces.
The story is related in first-person, in the style of the old hard-boiled gumshoe detectives. It is wry, witty, and told with a depth of feeling that is often missing in stories by lesser writers. Morton is an English teacher, and his deft grasp of the storytelling art never waivers for a moment.
The hard-boiled style leads to some quirkiness with syntax and grammar, but this lends the story an atmosphere quite effortlessly, even before any action takes place. There are plenty of eccentric characters in the cast that somehow avoid being clichés, and each of them is delightful in their own right.
Nothing, of course, is quite what it seems, and the main thrust of the story is all about Flycatcher trying to piece together what's really happening and how the heck did he find himself in such prestigious company. There are sub-stories and threads that weave a kaleidoscopic tapestry the hard-drinking Flycatcher has to contend with. It's a very colourful story that is compelling from the first paragraph.
There are a few parallels here with a story by Frederick Pohl called Gateway, published in 1976 and winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards. Gateway is one of the classics, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland really deserves to be treated with equal respect. Pohl's story is a psychological thriller and a tragedy, whereas Morton's offering is a straight-up mystery/adventure somewhat reminiscent of the Golden Age of science-fiction yet still feeling modern and fresh. There is also a flavour of the old Ripping Yarns, though Morton seems far too young to remember them.
This is a brilliant story, artfully told. It is immersive, entertaining and full of twists and turns. The world is fully realised and engagingly depicted, and the slow-burning menace that underpins it all is cleverly hidden in the subtext. This is a five-star story in every respect, and highly recommended.
Chris maintains an excellent website: https://newadventuresinscifi.blogspot.com/