Created by Adam Sternbergh

“It’s hokey but it’s true. You learn things hauling trash.”
— Shovel Ready

In his relatively well-received debut, Shovel Ready (2014), Adam Sternbergh, culture editor for the New York Times Magazine and former editor-at-large at New York Magazine, paints a suitably bleak but well-rendered picture of a post-apocalyptic Big Apple that’s just around the corner; a place where plugged-in virtual fantasy “beds” are the new cocaine for the swells in the high-rises, while the rabble down on the streets settle for a spam-clogged Internet, cheap drugs, and some of that good ol’ religion to bypass the “too sharp edges of the actual world.”

It may be one radiation-befouled, hollowed-out shithole shell of a city, but NYC refuses to die, even with much of its population long gone, and huge swathes of it (including Times Square and parts of the subway) unfit for human use, courtesy of a prolonged series of 9/11-like attacks. But there are still joggers on the streets and hustlers, whores, and assorted other miscreants still working the corners, bars, and back rooms still standing.

One such miscreant is Hoboken, New Jersey’s own SPADEMAN (allusions to Dashiell Hammett gratefully noted), a former garbage man who wears his cynicism a little too loudly and proudly on his sleeve, and who’s fond of noting that his current occupation, bumping off people for money, isn’t really all that much different from his former occupation–he’s still just taking out the trash. But when he’s hired by a powerful evangelist to track down and kill his pregnant runaway daughter, Spademan instead quickly switches sides, for reasons that serve the plot better than the character.

Of course, eventually we learn Spademan has his reasons.

To his credit, Sternbergh certainly creates a credible, well-thought-out future and uses enough familiar (cyber)noir tropes to connect all the dots, and first person narrator Spademan serves up some pithy commentary on “the too-sharp edges of the actual world” that he lives in. But we’ve seen most of this grungy urban nightmare so often in the years since Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer that this seems more like a well-done genre exercise than the fresh, original “literary” work that the author–or his publisher, perhaps–intended. The lack of dialogue tags and quotation marks is more distracting than ground-breaking, and adds absolutely nothing to the book, although it may garner some acclaim from the tweed jacket crowd and the black-clad denizens of the literati.

For the rest of us, though, we’ve been here before.

But what do I know? The debut has garned several award nominations, including being shortlisted for a 2015 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a sequel, Near Enemy popped up a year later.

But since then… radio silence.


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. This entry originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Mystery Scene, in slightly different form. Used with permission of the author.

One thought on “Spademan

  1. Dialogue tags is a new one to me. I have havered between quotation marks and inverted commas but I do like that one.
    I once met a literary writer at a convention – I knew he was a literary writer because he told me so. He said he didn’t need to accentuate his dialog. “Good writing doesn’t need it,” he said.
    “So what’s your excuse,” I said.

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