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Editorial Reviews

Legend has it that, while they were working on the script for The Big Sleep, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett had to phone Raymond Chandler to clarify who killed a particular character; Chandler eventually admitted that even he couldn't work that one out, and let the scriptwriters decide for themselves. In even the most celebrated hard-boiled noir, then, clarity of plot is secondary to atmosphere, tone, and those particularly allusive metaphors — the more overblown, the better. Jonathan Lethem's Gun with Occasional Music (actually the author's first published novel, though newly released here on audio) is no exception — in fact, it takes these noir traditions to their illogical extreme by locating the plot in a surreal near-future where current societal trends are reflected in a funhouse mirror. Animals are "evolved" and take on human characteristics while remaining second-class members of society, babies are given growth hormones to "develop" quickly, radio news is broadcast in the form of abstract music, people's karma levels are monitored by a points-system, and, in a brilliant stroke, the only people allowed to ask direct questions are investigators (called "inquisitors"), so the gumshoe's verbal dexterity and panache takes on a heightened significance that heralds Lethem's career as a literary wunderkind.

Narrator Nick Sullivan serves this dialogue well, and has great fun with the accumulation of wisecracks. Lines like "The Bay View was a vacation spot for people vacating from their husbands and wives" are delivered with perfect timing, fitting for the kind of deadpan one-liners that are stock in trade of gumshoe narratives. If he perhaps emphasises the comic and cartoon at the expense of the story's darker undertones, then it is compensated by his well-drawn cast of characters, including a lugubrious villain and a tough-guy kangaroo hoodlum.

Although not as substantial as Lethem's two masterpieces, Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, Gun with Occasional Music clearly sets forth the author's predilection for genre-bending, being somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick — perhaps with a touch of Who Framed Roger Rabbit thrown in. —Dafydd Phillips

Publisher's Summary

Gumshoe Conrad Metcalf has problems - not the least of which are the rabbit in his waiting room and the trigger-happy kangaroo on his tail. Near-future Oakland is an ominous place where evolved animals function as members of society, the police monitor citizens by their karma levels, and mind-numbing drugs such as Forgettol and Acceptol are all the rage.

In this brave new world, Metcalf has been shadowing the wife of an affluent doctor, perhaps falling a little in love with her at the same time. But when the doctor turns up dead, our amiable investigator finds himself caught in the crossfire in a futuristic world that is both funny - and not so funny.

©1994 Jonathan Lethem; (P)2009 BBC Audio

Critic Reviews

"This colorful first novel is a fast and lively read, full of humorous visions and outlandish predicaments." (Publishers Weekly)
"[A] sparkling pastiche of Chandleresque detective fiction displaced to an almost comical postmodern landscape." (Booklist)
"Marries Chandler's style and Philip K. Dick's vision...an audaciously assured first novel." (Newsweek)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Darwin8u
  • Mesa, AZ, United States
  • 04-18-12

SF SLAMS into a hard-boiled, noir pulp!

Science fiction slams into a hard-boiled, noir pulp (imagine 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' written by Chandler and directed by David Lynch'). Fun, quick and in parts even close to brilliant.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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Noir detective novel meets alternative future...

This book was in my library for a very long time... I think I thought it was a different kind of book than it actually was. It is billed as a noir-detective type novel, but I would have to say that it is equally an alternative future/sci-fi type novel.

It does have the Chandler-esque tone to it: making it on the dark side, and the action is short and succinct. It is not particularly violent or graphic, but has an over-arching depression about it. (i.e. you won't find a feel-good sensation at the end).

There is significant drug use - in fact, this is the component that sets the novel out as alternative future-ish... drug use has been legalized, and, even more disturbingly, made customizable for users. In fact, it changes society completely at the end - and it adds a layer of bleakness to the story, while still remaining believable. If you look at it quickly, you might think the drug use was just this detectives' booze (after all, don't all noir detectives have addictions?), but I think it was actually the component that carved out this world: the very world became the way it is in the novel because of this drug 'reality'. And the ending of the novel wouldn't have worked without it.

I have read elsewhere that the novel was a commentary on the state of individual detachment from/in the world, and I suppose that could be an accurate description. Except that I didn't read it for social insights or moral issues; I read it for simple enjoyment. Fortunately it delivered. Sure, you can read all sorts of stuff into it, but you don't have to, and I think the book stands well as a futuristic noir.

The narration is good. There is violence, but it is not graphic. There is no sex. I will be looking for more books by this author.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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quirky SF detective story

this is very much a Chandler "Big Sleep" type story but channeled through Pynchon and PK Dick. very good, and though the narrator could have been a bit more world weary noirish, or a bit more comic like Michael Kramer's narration for Westlake, (you really need to get Kramer's Dortmunder recordings on Audible) he does a good job. interested in Lethem's Chronocity now.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Rhett
  • CHAPEL HILL, NC, United States
  • 03-18-13

Gun, with Occasional Music

Any additional comments?

What happens if you take the classic noir detective story and put it into an American future characterized by perverse pleasure? You get this novel.

First the positive. If you like a traditional tough-guy detective story told in the first person, this has got that. It’s even set in the Bay Area and incorporates all of the necessary elements, damsels in distress, a seductress, tough guys jawing at one another, a morally flawed main character, etc. In fact, early on in the book I thought that I would rate it fairly high simply because Jonathan Lethem had done such a tremendous job of matching the trope. I was particularly taken with his deft touch on the snappy tough-guy repartee, if this were a movie there would be many quotable lines.

That said, I found it a little lacking at points. Frankly there were a few points where the book just lost my attention. These points seemed to be primarily where he left the main detective plot line and immersed the reader in world building. More importantly, I could never quite figure out how the world Lethem created served the story. For instance, you can expect the main character in this type of novel to hit the bottle or have an addiction, but everyone had an addiction and I’m still wondering how, other than occasionally making some people harder to question, that served the story. Another example of this was a series of genetically mutated animals. They were an interesting set of characters to play with and read about, but I can’t say that I felt like they added depth to the plot in anyway, which I see as a strong negative in a murder mystery. There was also a backdrop of Karma Points, which when it was first introduced I thought was an interesting concept, but it just never seemed to go anywhere intriguing.

As I think this through, it seems to me that the writer must have wanted to write a noir detective story, which is cool. Then he decided to place the story in a really funky world and the problem is that the world doesn’t end up facilitating the story, it came off to me as simply arbitrary.

Don’t get me wrong because of the strong first-person narration and appropriate incorporation of the genre’s tropes, it is an entertaining read. It just falls a little flat in the end. My official rating for this is 3.5 stars, but since most sites won’t let you do half a star I’ll click the three star button because I simply do not feel strongly enough about it to make it four stars.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • sherri
  • Kirkland, WA, United States
  • 12-13-12

Such a clever idea but that's all

There's no denying the quality of Lethem's writing. His mimicry of the hard-boiled, Raymond Chandler type, simile-swinging detective is spot on. The novel's concept is clever and engaging--at first. After the first surprise of discovering the old-fashioned PI juxtaposed with a dystopian society, I found the story gets old, the characters are trite and undeveloped, and I got bored.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • danni
  • Sointula, BC, Canada
  • 06-20-10

all about style

As with all Lethem's books, it's not the story that entertains, it's the writing. His books are all an interesting turn of phrase.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Raymond Chandler for the twenty-second century, warts and all.

This book does a masterful job of channeling what made the greats of the hard-boiled genre great, while also bringing something of its own in its unconventional, unsettling near-future setting. The reading is outstanding as well. I came to this book from Lethem's later novel Motherless Brooklyn, and, for anyone else in the same position, I can say that much of what makes Motherless Brooklyn such a success is fully at work here. The sole caveat is that the deep love for place in Lionel Esrogg's Brooklyn does not come through as clearly for John Metcalf's Oakland - or may just have been lost on me.

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  • Nicc
  • Hondo, Tx
  • 02-18-17

Awesome crime noir!

Great overall story, the vocals are wonderful, and the characters are hilarious! Recommended if you like noir.

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Creative Dark Future Noir

The story is set in a retro future with land lines, phone books, and specialized cocaine. I loved the silliness and the satire, but it never reached beyond it's genre of noir. It would be fun if this was a series, but its not. It goes to show Lethem's ability to make you feel like there are many other stories to tell in this world, and he paints the picture quickly enough that you can step into it within the first hour.

My favorite aspect of the world were the science experiments the government or powers that be were enacting on the population and how they were almost not vital to the story. Letham is able to use walking talking animals in place of Dick Tracy villains but describes each wrinkle the same way the comic strip did with lots of tiny lines.

The narrator's performance is slow and simple for my taste and often had strange inflection. I think the story would have suited a subtle performance rather than the gum shoe cartoon voice that's used. As with many of noir titles in first person, the narrator's often have gruff voices that make their children and women character voices conjure images of men in drag with fake high pitched voices.

All in all, good fun.

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Need a prequel and sequel

If you could sum up Gun, with Occasional Music in three words, what would they be?

Hammet , Drugs and a Kangaroo

Did the plot keep you on the edge of your seat? How?

Quaint amusing plot introducing science gone Wrong mutated animal characters it was extremely enjoyable listening to the wonderfully drawn caricatures of the inhabitants of this bay area bizarre family. It was not a story glorifying drugs but rather a scene of the future of psychopharmacology industry It was very well done and it's a shame that it's still not in a series run

Which character – as performed by Nick Sullivan – was your favorite?

The detective, the kangaroo ,the baby heads ,the gorilla and every last other one of the players

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I was in shock and awe at how close this came to my InVisioning of the future

Any additional comments?

Laythan should rearrange his priorities and write this in full series of fun and laughter

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