Science fiction noir doesn't come much nastier than the KOP novels by Warren Hammond. The adventures of a bent cop on a rotten planet, they're like Dashiell Hammett mixed with Philip K. Dick. Spoilers ahead.
I'm pretty much a noir addict, especially the works of Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Stark and MacDonald. (I also loved Frank Miller's Sin City comics, back in the day.) There's tons of science fiction noir out there, but it's rare for an SF book to hit my noir sweet spot quite as well as Hammond's first two novels, KOP and Ex-KOP. Hammond avoids any hint of pastiche or satire in his tale of over-the-hill bruiser Juno Mozambe. And he never makes Mozambe remotely loveable or even cool. Mozambe's just as revolting and broken as the world he inhabits.
That's the world of Lagarto, an Earth colony that's gotten royally screwed over by the rest of the human race. It's sort of a New Orleans-esque place, mixed with some third-world country. Lagarto's brandy-making industry collapsed years ago, taking the planet's economy with it, and now all that's left is tourism and vice, which usually turn out to be the same thing. Offworlders come to Lagarto and treat it like their own private playground, and all the locals are corrupt, from the slumdogs of Tenttown to the local money-skimming elites. In a neat metaphor for Lagarto's fuckedness, the steamy planet includes particularly aggressive flies that lay their eggs inside of an open wound within seconds. Any time people get injured, or even nicked, they'll have maggots breeding inside their wounds in no time. There's also something called "the rot" that can eat you alive if you're not careful.
When we first Mozambe, he's a bag-man for the police department, going around collecting protection money from brothels, smack dealers and gambling parlors. He kids himself that he, and the corrupt squad he works with, are helping to keep the city safe by working with organized crime and preventing the city's criminals from running amuck. But Mozambe's just kidding himself, plus the nice stable crime organization he's used to working with is on its way out, and nothing but chaos and worsening corruption are coming in its place. Good honest poppy farming and ass peddling are giving way to snuff films and human trafficking. Mozambe's a dinosaur, increasingly unable to throw his weight around the way he used to. By the second book, Mozambe is pretty much a punching bag for all the lowlifes he used to terrorize. (But it's not much of a spoiler to say Mozambe always comes out on top, mostly because he's still more vicious and cunning than everyone else.)
At times, you could almost kid yourself you're reading a regular noir detective story, because Lagarto is a low-tech backwater, where criminals and cops both use knives and fists a lot of the time. But Hammond uses science-fictional elements to add to the bleakness and paranoia, rather than just at random. The offworld visitors to Lagarto are perfect physical specimens, with lily white skin and chiseled physiques in contrast to the locals, who are all mixed-race and show their ages. The offworlders frequently have enhanced muscles, super-genitals and built-in defenses (like electrocution and poison claws) making them almost impossible to beat in a fair fight. Pretty much every offworlder we meet is a sadistic fuck, who toys with the locals for temporary amusement.
And there are other science fiction touches, as well. Like the holograms people use to communicate, which always wear an eerily happy face no matter how freaked out or pissed off the person's voice may be. And the occasional bits of surveillance technology that the hardscrabble cops manage to scare up.
The main glimmer of optimism in both novels comes from Maggie Orzo, a spoiled rich girl who becomes a police officer and tries to convince Mozambe to help clean up the sewer of the police department. She's young and idealistic, but you also never forget that she's almost as privileged and sheltered as those psychotic perfect offworlders.
Both KOP and Ex-KOP are super fast reads, with enough brutality and corruption to keep you riveted, while they still offer up the occasional glimmer of hope that Mozambe (and Lagarto) can be redeemed. You can probably read either book in one or two sittings. A warning, though: They're not especially well-written, and KOP in particular has some super clunky exposition. At his absolute worst, Hammond doesn't just tell instead of showing. He tells, and then he tells using slightly different words, and then he comes back a page or two later and tells again a couple more times. At his best, his writing is pulpy and cheesetastic, as in this scene, where a kinky pornstar is trying to seduce Mozambe (unsuccessfully):
"Ooh, is it interrogation time?" Liz turned on her "Liz Lagarto: Porn Star" persona. "I don't know anything about any of that, offither." She little-girl lisped the word officer...
I felt weak as I took in her parted lips, her jasmine-smelling hair, her erect nipples... "I said stop it." The words came out limp, as another part of me was becoming anything but.
Really, the writing is no worse than a hundred other detective novels. I used to consume crime fiction like popcorn, and I've encountered far worse prose. The saving grace of KOP and Ex-KOP are the unrepentant nastiness of Mozambe - even when he's trying to be a better person, he expresses it by being a foul bastard - and the slow spectacle of this lifelong asskicker becoming the world's hacky sack. Plus the unrelentingly cruel worldbuilding that goes into Lagarto, which is dystopian and unrelentingly horrible, and almost beyond saving. Supposedly, Hammond is working on a third Mozambe book, and I'm totally on board. [Amazon]