#293 – Tiger and the Robot by Grahame Shannon

It’s interesting to think about how the mystery genre has adapted over time. Think about how many changes have occurred in mystery solving between Sherlock Holmes and today. Forensics, fingerprints, DNA, facial recognition tech, and, perhaps most importantly, the internet. Yet the core of mystery storytelling is essentially the same.

I think the internet has had the biggest impact on the detective novel because of how it has changed the way we access information. Before you might have required a bunch of research to occur to learn about something or someone, now you can go online and research just about anything you need in an instant. Sherlock Holmes had Burke’s Peerage to understand who’s who in London Society. We have Google. Very little can remain hidden in the electronic age.

These advances in technology require a counterbalance to keep any sense of mystery going. If you have cellphones, you have to find ways for those phones not to work at critical times. If fingerprints and DNA exist, then a smart criminal needs to know ways around them. And if you have the internet, then you need clever ways to cover your tracks online as well.

But, here’s a question: What if the detective IS the internet?

Tiger and the Robot is a different kind of detective story, one which puts a sophisticated AI in the roll of Sherlock Holmes and its creator unwittingly becoming her Watson, though everyone is made to think he’s the real detective. I guess that makes this story the AI equivalent of Remmington Steele.

What I liked about this story was how the author, Grahame Shannon, made the AI feel like a plausible creation. You look back at movies like Electric Dreams, for example, where the AI occurs because of a spilled can of soda, or Short Circuit where it’s a bolt of lightning, and you realize just how much “screw it, it’s magic” was involved in most AI related stories of the past.

It’s harder for that to wash now, in part because we’re getting tantalizingly close to seeing it actually happen. These days, you need more than having a computer hit by lightning to buy into the premise.

So much of the early story involves the protagonist, Chandler Gray (a detective name if there ever was one), trying to develop an app, Saga, intended to assist private investigators on their cases. As he walks the reader through the development process, you realize just how not-impossible it all is. He accounts for just about everything the app is capable of doing in plausible ways.

Now, granted, the leap from real to suspension of disbelief still happens, but Graham carries you far enough along the process that you’re willing to go along for the ride.

The mystery centres around the kidnapping of a wealthy socialite after a chance encounter with Chandler. Thanks to Saga, he ends up being hired to find and recover her, and along the way finds out that the kidnapping is far more complicated and organized than it first seems. In fact, the kidnapping might not have to do with the socialite at all…

Another thing I appreciated about the story was its approach towards violence—in that it’s something to be avoided, and not in the “I might get hurt” sense. It’s clear how much a “guns blazing” approach would complicate everything in the real world, especially during the aftermath when the police get involved. And so the strategies developed and used have to reflect that.

This helps with the verisimilitude of the story, reminding us that there are consequences to certain actions. Yet the action scenes still manage to be tense, as Chandler and the team he builds up have to be that much more clever about how they approach a rescue situation.

In terms of character, Chandler is intelligent, but a bit out of his depth… he’s a former boat racer and programmer who ends up creating an app that is smarter than he is, so that’s pretty much what you would expect of him.

And Saga is, well, kind of a work in progress, and deliberately so. Throughout the story, you get the impression that she is trying on new personalities quirks like other people try on hats, but there is a certain single-mindedness and perhaps arrogance about her that persists. Seeing how other people interact with Saga is often entertaining, and at one point she even attempts stand up comedy.

The author definitely belongs in the “write what you know” school of storytelling. Grahame used to be a boat builder, a naval architect, and a software developer who spends much of his time these days along the west coast. All of these things are present in the book. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone’s biography line up with their story so closely before. 

This is a good book with a premise more than interesting enough to carry you through to the final pages. If you’re looking for a different kind of cozy mystery, give it a shot.

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