Top positive review
Hard Boiled Sleuthing In The 22nd Century
Reviewed in the United States on February 1, 2017
As a reader who buys Gene Wolfe books sight unseen before publication, naturally, A Borrowed Man magically showed up on release date. As with any Wolfe novel, you have to measure it before you read it. It took me several months to measure it and then I read it.
A Borrowed Man occupies the Wolfe shelf in my mind that I call "Wolfe Mysteries," "Mysteries" being the more prosaic definition of the term as used in literature. Like Free Live Free, Castleview, There Are Doors, and The Sorcerer's House, even The Land Across, A Borrowed Man is a mystery and/or detective novel. Of course, what Wolfe detects in these novels and the detectives he employs are decidedly different than your Raymond Chandler pulps, but it does seem to be a trope Wolfe feels comfortable with.
A Borrowed Man is perhaps an even more direct reflection of this trope, as the protagonist is a revivified clone of a 21st century detective novelist and made available for "check out" at libraries in a 22nd century version of the USA. Of course, the mystery at hand involves a beautiful, enigmatic heiress who checks him out to help her solve a not so normal slice-and-dump. This is Gene Wolfe, after all.
Having said that, the arc, tone, and structure, is old-school and perhaps that's what put me off. I'd really like to rate this 3 1/2 stars, but the extra half goes to Wolfe on general principle. As with almost all Wolfe books, I'll need to re-read it to catch what I missed just following the story arc, but that may take a while, as the trope is, to me, off-putting. Additionally, he utilizes a narrative trick where the narrator's own voice and usage is at odds with the character he created for his pulp detective stories. I see what Wolfe is trying to do, but, to me, it is rarely successful.
I suppose one could characterize ALL Wolfe books as mysteries, but the approaches differ. The Book of the New Sun was so fabulous because of Severian, the unreliable narrator, and the manifold mysteries he discovers, solves (rightly or wrongly), and the implications of the denouement. I also enjoyed the Soldier series, with the incredible backdrop of ancient Greece, and felt that the third volume, A Soldier of Sidon, was one of Wolfe's very best novels ever. I also dearly love On Blue's Waters, the first book in the so-called Short Sun series, because of its elegiac and expansive voice, perhaps the most personal novel Wolfe has ever written.
For newcomers to Wolfe, particularly if they have heard of all the praise--rightly--heaped upon the writer's oeuvre, A Borrowed Man would leave them wondering what all the fuss was about. With Wolfe, one really should start at the beginning with The Fifth Head of Cerberus, then The Book of the New Sun. After avidly re-reading and soaking in those volumes, you can appreciate Wolfe's prowess much more acutely with his more intimately constructed books. Also, grab any of his short fiction collections (i.e., Endangered Species) because short forms concentrate and bring out his marvelous storytelling skills.