By Charlie Huston
First Published: 2010
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Noir Crime Thriller, Mystery, Science Fiction, General Fiction
Sleepless is a hard boiled noir crime thriller from Charlie Huston set in present times with one major difference from our current reality, an incurable and fatal contagious disease labeled SLP is spreading through the world. The disease attacks the brain in a similar manner to mad cow’s disease with devastating consequences. The first symptom of SLP is that the victims can no longer sleep. From the onset of sleeplessness, the victims can expect to die within a year. Currently, only one drug has been shown to be effective in providing relief to the sufferers by enabling them to sleep although it in no way provides a cure. However, the demand for this drug is well beyond production capacity and it has become the most closely controlled substance in the world. Against this background, an undercover cop has been given a most difficult task, to uncover any developing black markets for the drug so that they can be shut down before they threaten to shatter the thin veneer of civilization that maintains some semblance of law and order within the United States.
In Sleepless, Charlie Huston has created a brilliant premise that is as realistic as it is scary. He obviously did some detailed research into the possibilities of the development of a disease like SLP which is closely related to a current extremely rare real hereditary disease called Fatal Familial Insomnia that is as incurable as Huston’s fictional SLP. He immerses the reader in a world that is under the early stages of a growing apocalypse where the basics of civilization are under threat. As the SLP disease spreads, increasing numbers of the population enter the “sleepless” condition and they are referred to more derogatorily as “zombies”. However, this is not a zombie novel as the “zombies” are mostly in the background as victims of a disease that slowly debilitates them but does not cause them to become aggressive or bloodthirsty.
Even more impressive than the invention of a brilliant premise is the manner in which Huston develops a taught thriller plot with some of the most memorable and unique characters you could meet. There are two main characters in Sleepless who come from opposite sides of the law. Park is an undercover cop who is honest to a fault and has been picked specifically to investigate illegal sales and distribution of the only drug that provides relief for SLP because his superior has confidence that he can’t be bought. Park begins his undercover job in the belief that he is following his duty and may be able to make a difference to the world that seems to be falling apart around him. However, when his wife comes down with SLP and his daughter is at risk, his motivation becomes much more personal. He soon finds himself uncovering some disturbing connections that indicate powerful conspiracies may be at work. Park knows time is critical and is determined to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
The other main character is an unnamed assassin of the most deadly and experienced sort. The assassin is an ex member of an elite special forces unit who is good at what he does, very good as evidenced by his advanced age for a man in his business. He also has a stylish way with words and a great appreciation for art although his appreciation may be a bit twisted. In addition, the assassin has an issue with OCD but he has managed to adapt his obsessions with neatness and “balance” to his advantage. He has been tasked with obtaining a valuable hard drive at any cost that leads him to intersect with the work Park is doing.
My only complaint with Sleepless is that I was initially confused as to who was narrating some sections because while the assassin always narrates in first person, Park sometimes narrates in third person and sometimes narrates in first person. In the beginning, I was not sure whether the first person sections were being told by Park or the assassin or someone else until I learned to recognize the tone of each narrative. This confusion can be avoided by noting that any section that begins with a date heading such as 7/7/10 signals a journal entry from Park so all these first person sections are narrated by Park while all other first person sections are narrated by the assassin. Within a few chapters, the narrator becomes obvious due to the style of language which is much different between Park and the assassin.
With a world that’s falling apart and a masterful and stylish assassin as a main character, you can bet there is some extreme violence in this novel. Indeed, there are more than few scenes of intense violence including torture. But in addition to violence, there are also scenes of profound tenderness and love. You don’t often find this kind of emotionally moving material in a hard boiled crime novel so be prepared for some rollercoaster emotions.
While the initial chapters of the novel require some patience from the reader as Huston develops the background and characters, by chapter 7, the novel goes into high gear and from this point on it becomes almost impossible to put down. The pace and tension seem to increase throughout the novel right up to a very satisfying ending.
For anyone who likes noir crime thrillers, Sleepless should be pushed up to the top of your must-read list. Science fiction fans who enjoy mysteries or crime thrillers should also be sure to not miss this novel. Only those who can’t handle scenes of extreme violence should be wary. Sleepless just vaulted into one of the top position in my list of all-time favorite novels.