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Literature / The Night Mayor

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The Night Mayor is a 1989 science fiction novel by Kim Newman.

In the future, virtual reality has succeeded TV, film, and 3D as the big thing in popular entertainment. Susan Bishopric, a professional author of VR experiences, is conscripted by the Gunmint for a problem that requires her particular set of skills.

Truro Daine, the most notorious master criminal of the past century, has escaped from maximum security. There was no way out, so he's gone in — into a virtual world of his own devising. The City is an amalgamation of every Film Noir city ever, where everything is shades of gray and it's always two thirty in the morning and raining. All the NPCs are replicas of 1940s film stars, with personalities based on their screen personas. And Daine, the Night Mayor of the City, has godlike power within his creation, so that anyone who goes in after him will quickly find things becoming, well, nightmarish. Somebody has to go in and catch or kill him before he finishes breaking out through cyberspace into the systems that run the real world. And only an experienced VR designer, used to manipulating virtual worlds from the inside, has a chance of challenging Daine on his own turf.

Also, did we mention, Susan wasn't their first choice. Tom Tunney, another VR author who specialises in Film Noir-inspired adventures, plugged into the City a week ago, and there hasn't been a twitch from him since...

This novel contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Vanessa Vail, Susan's most famous fictional creation.
  • The Alternet: Everything Is Online in a massive computer network called Yggdrasil, named for the World Tree in Norse Mythology that holds the worlds together. It's used for communication, for research, and other internet-like purposes. It's a significant plot point that, unlike the internet we got in the real world, there's a central computer system overseeing the whole thing and keeping it running.
  • And I Must Scream: In the end, Truro Daine succeeds in uploading his mind into the Yggdrasil network, planning to take it over from within — only to learn that Yggdrasil already has a mind of its own, compared to which he is a "harmless parasite", no more powerful or significant than a single microbe in a human body. "Truro Daine ... screamed. And screamed. Yggdrasil ignored the meaningless squeak and reapplied itself to its many businesses."
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: A Chinese fortuneteller in the City's Chinatown district, who turns out to be a Caucasian pretending to be Chinese.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: As a homage to the use of this trope in old films, the cult's Ominous Latin Chanting is just a string of cliché Latin phrases like "cave canem" and "reduction ad absurdum".
  • Baby Carriage: At one point during the car chase, a little old lady starts crossing the road ahead, very slowly, with a baby carriage containing quintuplets. Tunney ruthlessly drives through them on the basis that they're all NPCs and no reason to slow down and get caught.
  • Background Music: In the City, significant characters have their own background music that follows them around, getting louder as they approach and fading as they move away.
  • Badass Boast: Susan to Daine after their first battle. "What do you want to call that, Daine? A draw? Too easy. This is Susan Bishopric here. I've won one Rodney and I'll have a shitload more this autumn. I can Dream rings around you, and you ain't seen nothin' yet!"
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: An attribute of Vanessa Vail: when she passes out from her injuries she falls gracefully into a nice-looking sprawl, and when she's dying she's positively angelic.
  • Benevolent A.I.: The AI that runs the Yggdrasil system.
  • A Bloody Mess: After a shootout in a diner in the City, a character comes to in a pool of something dark and sticky that turns out, fortunately, to just be ketchup.
  • Body Horror: When Susan tries to challenge Daine directly, he shows off his control by inflicting a series of body horror transformations on her. After the tables turn, she returns the favour.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Guns in the City never run out of bullets unless that would be more dramatically interesting.
  • The Butler Did It: Mentioned as a possible mystery solution that doesn't turn up in the kind of movies the City is built around.
  • City with No Name: The City.
  • Cure for Cancer: It's mentioned in passing that a completely effective treatment for cancer has recently become widely available — incidentally making things difficult for Susan, who's working on a story where the plot depended on a character dying of cancer at the emotionally most affecting moment.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: It's acknowledged that a man of Daine's intellect could have been more wealthy and at least as influential by legitimate means, but that would have "bored him zoidal".
  • Cut the Juice: Discussed and averted. Switching off the City simulation while Daine is still inside would fry his brain and effectively kill him, which the prison governor won't do until the lawyers have finished arguing out the legal ramifications. And then after a while Daine has hacked the controls, and they can't switch it off.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Everything in the City is in shades of grey, to match the movies it's modeled on. The narration occasionally underlines this by describing the color of something only the color isn't, such a woman's glossy black lipstick or a priceless grey jade necklace. After he's been in the City a while, Tunney finds he's having trouble remembering what "blue" or "red" look like.
  • Demonic Possession: The technological equivalent, where the designer of a virtual world takes direct control of an existing character, is referred to as "dybbuking". Daine does it several times over the course of the novel.
  • Deus est Machina: It's gradually revealed that Yggdrasil, the computer system that runs Everything Is Online future Britain, has achieved sapience. After it notices what Daine is up to (it's got a lot on its mind), it steps in to help Susan and Tunney.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Truro Daine's extensive career is such that the only equivalent comparisons people can find are fictional supervillains like Fu Manchu and Lex Luthor. When he was finally caught, the charges started with 8921 counts of first-degree murder, and continued through arson, blackmail, drug-running, pornography, and other trespasses too numerous to mention. The jail time due for all his crimes is enough that if he lived that long he'd come out to find the human race had evolved into something else.
  • Divided States of America: It's mentioned as a passing detail that there's been another War Between the States and the southern USA is now the CSA.
  • Domain Holder: Within the confines of the City, Daine can do anything — turn a gun into a water pistol in the time it takes to draw and fire it, animate statues, and inflict body horror transformations, among other more or less dramatic effects. Susan and Tunney increasingly acquire similar powers as they wrest control from him.
  • Famous, Famous, Fictional: Susan notes that the VR medium is still waiting for a pioneer to really showcase its potential as an artform the way D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein did for film in the 20th century, or Chillmeister Freaze did for ice sculpture in the 21st.
  • Fan of the Past:
    • Tom Tunney is a fan of 20th-century hardboiled detective fiction.
    • Susan Bishopric studied 20th-century film at school as part of her preparation for her career. She also has an extensive music collection, songs from which get mentioned throughout the novel at appropriate moments, and they're always songs from the 20th century or earlier.
  • Frame-Up: Tunney inserts himself into the City as a private detective hired to track down Daine. Daine outmaneuvres him by faking his own death in circumstances that point to the detective as the obvious suspect, forcing him to concentrate on dodging the City's police force.
  • Friendly Local Chinatown: The City has a Chinatown, though it's a pretty unfriendly one full of thieves, opium dens and corrupt officials.
  • Future Slang: Scattered throughout, including abbreviations, verbing, and an instance where Susan uses the actual phrase "Expletive deleted!" as an expletive. In one scene, Susan reflects on the ways slang has changed in the past five years — "squitch" has replaced "kink", "bove" has replaced "zooper" — and the reader never finds out what any of those words mean.
  • Future Spandex: The usual outfit in Susan's time is "a clothe", some kind of one-piece thing that isn't described in detail.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Within the City, people can only speak the kind of language that wouldn't get a filmmaker in trouble with the Hays Code. "Darn!" and "Heck!" qualify as "the vilest abuse imaginable".
  • Got Volunteered: The Gunmint has the power to Conscript people with useful skills to deal with emergencies, taking them away at a moment's notice from whatever they're doing. Officially, Conscription only involves asking the chosen person to volunteer their services and anybody who doesn't want to can say no, pay a fine, and that will be it. In practice, nobody has ever dared to say no. For a job as difficult as the one Susan is Conscripted for, there is at least the prospect of being well paid for her trouble... if she lives that long.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Richie Quick, Tom Tunney's main character.
  • Human Sacrifice: Among the denizens of the City is an evil cult that nearly sacrifices Susan to its god.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Tunney, after being bested by Daine.
    I needed a drink. Several, one on top of the other. I wasn't sure there were enough drinks in the City for what I had in mind, but, as the man said, a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?
  • Living Statue: At one point, Daine animates a statue of himself that stands outside City Hall.
  • Longer-Than-Life Sentence: The prison governor, recapping Daine's career:
    Before they gave up, the international courts found him culpable in enough instances to entail a mandatory sentence without remission that would take a significant chunk out of the lifespan of a continent. If he were able to live out his stretch, it is likely the human race would have evolved beyond all recognition by the time he was eligible for parole.
  • Lost in Character: Tom Tunney goes into the City in character as Richie Quick, figuring it will help him blend in, but as the world gets its claws into him he forgets his real self and starts thinking he actually is Richie Quick.
  • Mayor Pain: The mayor of the City is corrupt and incompetent, "the best politician money could buy". It's said he once had a children's hospital torn down to make room for a miniature golf course.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Susan Bishopric and Tom Tunney, the protagonists, are both authors of VR adventures, which is why the Gunmint calls them up to deal with the sitution. The novel includes glimpses of the writer's life, such as dealing with uncreative interviews, and a sequence of Susan preparing a new edition of her most famous work and fixing the bits that no longer work because science and culture have marched on.
  • Nobody Poops: Tom Tunney observes that while you're in the City you never need to go to the men's room — which is just as well, because there aren't any men's rooms.
  • Noodle Implements: At one point during her sojourn in the City, Susan passes the famous detective Basil Rathbone, expounding to his loyal sidekick Nigel Bruce about a case involving gorilla footprints, Ecuadorian pygmy poison, and an alabaster hand with six fingers.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: During the cult's ceremonies.
  • Perp Sweating: Tom Tunney's interrogation at the hands of the City police ticks all the traditional boxes, including the bright desk light and the good cop and bad cop.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Any time someone gets shot in the City, because it runs on movie rules.
  • Private Eye Monologue: Tom Tunney's sections as viewpoint character are narrated in the first-person voice he uses for Richie Quick.
    With his gorilla shoulders crammed into a double-breasted suit, he looked ready to go fifteen rounds with an enraged moose. His fingers were a bunch of fat white bananas. I had to look twice before noticing the automatic stuck like a child's toy in his giant fist. He didn't have any dialogue, but the gun said "get in the car" in fifteen different languages.
  • Production Foreshadowing: Susan's most famous work is an adventure story starring an implausibly glamorous red-headed secret agent named Vanessa Vail. Newman's later Diogenes Club series stars an implausibly glamorous red-headed secret agent named Vanessa (who uses the alias "Vanessa Vail" in one of the first published stories of the series as a callback).
  • Pun-Based Title: Tom Tunney's adventure stories featuring private eye Richie Quick have titles like Get Richie Quick and The Quick and the Dead.
  • Redheads Are Ravishing: Vanessa Vail is a red-haired action girl with three men fighting for her.
  • Rent-a-Zilla: Susan announces her arrival in Daine's virtual world by summoning a kaiju out of the bay and sending it rampaging across the City.
  • Ripping Off the String of Pearls: Happens during one of the incidental dramas that make up life in the City.
  • Rummage Fail: Tom Tunney searches his imaginary pockets and pulls out "several guns, a half-empty bottle, a blackjack tagged Police Evidence — Do Not Remove, a deck of marked cards, several hundred dollars in small bills, a wallet full of ID in a variety of false names, a priceless necklace of grey fei tsui jade, a fistful of loose bullets, a switchblade with a snake on the handle, a bloodstained ice pick, several special editions of the Inquirer" and finally the notebook he's looking for.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Daine, possibly. While describing one of his early crimes, an official specifies that it was "shortly after he collected the life insurance on his parents". He doesn't elaborate on how the parents died, since it's beside the point he's making, but the implication is there.
  • Serial Killer: There's one lurking in the part of the City that's based on Sherlock Holmes films and other gaslit melodramas. Susan gets an up-close-and-personal encounter courtesy of Truro Daine, but is rescued by Yggdrasil.
  • Shark Pool: At one point, captured by the villains, Tunney is thrown into an alligator pit.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Signs of Disrepair: In the City, every neon sign has one letter not working.
  • Smart House: It's mentioned in passing that Susan's house is one, capable of doing things like keeping itself tidy and feeding her pet fish while she's away.
  • The Sociopath: The psychological profile of Daine offered to Susan by the prison warden is that he's a sociopath who turned to crime out of a need for stimulation and a deep-seated belief that nobody else is real the way he is.
  • Splash of Color: When Carradine is murdered, his blood is red, the first colored thing seen in the City.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: Susan and Tunney encounter a doorman modeled on one of the stereotypical African American comedians of the period (it doesn't specify which, but perhaps Willie Best).
  • Video Phone: When Susan's agent calls her at the beginning of the book, his face appears in a window on her computer screen.
  • Virtual-Reality Warper: Within the City, Daine is essentially able to write and rewrite the rules as he sees fit: when protagonist Tom Tunney tries to shoot him, Daine just turns his gun into a water pistol, then brainwashes him into becoming part of the narrative. VR designer Susan Bishopric fares a little better by trying to beat Daine at his own game, warping the simulation in increasingly grandiose ways; however, even she ends up getting overwhelmed and transformed into a serial killer in another narrative. It's not until Tunney and Bishopric are freed by Yggdrasil and join forces that they begin to undermine the Night Mayor's control of the City - and they have to, because Daine is out to extend the City over the entire Internet with the aim of taking over the world.
  • We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future: When she's called up, Susan is editing her breakout romantic thriller for a new edition, updated to take into account the social and technological changes of the past five years. The romantic death of the heroine gives her some trouble, because the disease the heroine died of in the original edition has since been eradicated, and so have all the other diseases romantic heroines used to die of. As an alternative, she considers having the heroine inadvertantly exposed to A Poison Unknown To Science.
  • We Will Not Have Pockets in the Future: The standard form of clothing in Susan's time is a one-piece outfit with no pockets. The get-up she's given when she enters the City is the first time she's ever worn clothes with pockets, and she's struck by how useful they are.
  • Wicked Cultured: Daine's persona in the City is this, the kind of villain who plays Wagner and talks about his collection of modern art while his goons are beating up the hero. It's not clear how much this was true of him in the real world.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks: The City district called "Poverty Row".
    It was the worst slum in the City, far from the swish Metro and Paramount districts. Jerry-built tenements cramped together, as convincing as cardboard flats. Every hotel room had an irritating sign flashing outside the window. Every alley had a mangy black cat set to cringe in a flashlight beam. When a door got slammed, the walls shook. There weren't many people on the streets at any time of the day. Extras cost money. This was the world of peeling paint, tap-dancing cockroaches, and the constant shadow of the boom mike. On Poverty Row, life had a low budget and a short running time.