The Next Time I Die–Hard Case Crime goes sci-fi in new crime story

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s fun to both know what you’re getting and to get some surprises, too.  That’s the case with Hard Case Crime’s latest novel, Jason Starr’s The Next Time I Die.  It’s billed as a paranoid thriller, a mix of Philip K. Dick and The Twilight Zone.  But the publisher is the home of classic crime novels, right?  It so happens that not only is The Next Time I Die a retelling of sorts of a few PKD short stories, it’s a mix of a number of sci-fi tropes while pulling in a protagonist you might find in old crime stories like Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A., James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, and Vera Caspary’s Laura.  All in, it’s a lot of fun.

Steven Blitz is neither a good guy nor a very likable guy.  Straight out of the gates he intimidates his wife, he’s self-centered, and pretty much a jerk.  And continuing that tradition of making we lawyers look bad, he’s a criminal defense lawyer defending a mass murder right out of Time After Time.  We meet Steven just as his wife kicks him out of his house, and that night he just misses a traffic accident, but finds himself defending a woman from a thug.  He gets knifed in the chest but when he awakens in the hospital he notices that the world has changed.

It’s 2020.  Al Gore lost his 2000 bid for the presidency, but wins in 2020–and Obama is his vice president.  Among other things, Pakistan and India are going to trigger World War III, there was no financial crisis, and nobody has heard of Google or Facebook.  Steven learns he is wealthy and he got his money by investing in Blockbuster (sorry, Netflix didn’t make it either).  Steven learns he’s still a jerk, but his relationships are different.  And like a familiar Philip K. Dick story, in this reality he has a child, a daughter named Lilly.

In the Back to the Future movies, a subplot involves Marty McFly trying to better himself by getting control of his anger, ultimately preventing him from getting into a collision by the end of the trilogy.  Blitz has a similar approach.  In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford’s character–another lawyer–has an injury and he returns with no memory–he learns that he cheated on his wife, that he was a bad person.  So readers will have seen all the pieces of Steven Blitz before.

Blitz is incredibly naive, so much so that it feels like the novel itself may have been written 20 years ago by Starr and shelved and recently picked back up.  Starr uses 9/11 as his big surprise: there were no 9/11 attacks, but unfortunately this has been used in sci-fi so many times now that it doesn’t have the impact it would have had 20 years ago.  Blitz must have never been exposed to the MCU or its Multiverse, never watched TV series like Counterpart, Life on Mars, The Dead Zone, or Medium.  Starr clearly has, as the transmogrification between here and there is described just like the mode in The Terminator and its progeny (it also has some parallels to TimeCop).  His dark protagonist asks, “What if every decision we make creates new strands of our lives?”  The reader in the 21st century is probably going to respond, “Where have you been?”

You know when you have that dream where you walk into a classroom and you’re handed a test you haven’t prepared for?  What if that was your entire life?  Even if it’s all been done before, it’s still a fun ride worth revision any new way writers can do it again.  Connie Willis is probably the current master of the form.  But this ticks all the sci-fi boxes.

For fans of the hard-boiled crime novel that get their hands on this one, don’t be worried, as Steven Blitz reads a lot like some characters you’ll recall from D.O.A. and Laura.  It just may not be the way you might think.

Readers get a stylish painted cover, this time by Claudia Caranfa, but despite the subject matter this story isn’t heavy in the sex department.  Violence and even gruesome death?  Definitely, which calls back to TimeCop.

A fun trip through the sci-fi tropes dipped into hard-boiled crime, Jason Starr’s The Next Time I Die is now available here at Amazon.

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