The Last Hot Time

Elven Intrigue and Kinky Sex in a Film-Noir Future

By John M. Ford; Reviewed by Kai MacTane

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Title: The Last Hot Time
Author: John M. Ford
Publisher: TOR
Vital Stats: © 2000; Trade paperback, 204 pp.; US$12.95; CDN$17.95
ISBN: 0-312-87578-9
Freak Nation Rating:
Buy It From: Powell’s Books

Mystical intrigue is always a good page-turner, but even more so when it’s based around interesting characters. John M. Ford’s The Last Hot Time has both, and the combination is even more seamless because some of the mystery lies deep within the characters themselves. Everyone has a secret, and discovering those secrets as the novel unfolds is the real driving force behind this book’s appeal.

The story starts with young paramedic Danny Holman on his final approach toward Chicago from his rural Iowa hometown. His journey is apparently equal parts escape from the past and flight to a new future, but it gets rudely interrupted when he drives into a gun battle between two cars driven by rival organizations. Stopping to assist the wounded, he earns the gratitude of the mysterious Mr. Patrise, and a spot on Patrise’s payroll. He also acquires an alias, based on his birthday: Doc Hallownight.

In Patrise’s organization, Hallownight meets a variety of interesting and colorful denizens of “the Levee” (as Chicago’s mystical outskirts are often called): the elven warrior, Cloudhunter Who Keeps His Sister’s Counsel; Lucius Birdsong, the enigmatic newspaper columnist; Lincoln McCain, Patrise’s right-hand man, who seems to be an open book; Ginevra Benci, who shows Doc love and trust where he least expects it; Stagger Lee, the ex-medic, the mystical mechanic and movie lover; torch singer Carmen Mirage; “Kitsune Asa, the Tokyo Fox”... and the breathtaking Miss Phasia, who can never tell what secrets she’s hiding.

But trying to reduce any of these characters to just a few words does them all a great disservice. Nobody here is a mere stereotype or cardboard cutout; the characters don’t exist to propel the plot. Instead, the plot grows effortlessly out of the personalities that dwell in the Levee, and their interactions with the mysterious villain who, though rarely seen, exerts a powerful presence whenever he’s even mentioned.

Whisper Who Dares the Word of Words in Darkness. Elven magician, serial killer... “he is quite insane”, Cloudhunter says of him at one point. Even when his aims and motives are unfathomable, they are clearly terrible, and terrifying. Moving in shadow and mystery, cloaked in black and wreathed in magic wrenched from blood and pain, he isn’t even mentioned or named until halfway through the book. But once that happens, the plot is inexorably drawn into orbit around his malevolent schemes.

And when an elf dies by gunshot, why does Patrise have Doc extract all the bullets from the corpse before sending it back over the border to Elfland?

Interwoven with Doc’s suspicions about his employer, and Patrise’s organization’s campaign against Whisper Who Dares, Doc also learns to cope with a society in which sexual mores are very different from those he grew up with. (“Danny thought hard about [his friend’s casual declaration of lesbianism]. His mother would have left the room. His grandmother would have come back with a shotgun.”) Doc also starts confronting his own darker desires. Ford gives us glimpses into Doc’s inner turmoil without spelling any of it out too bluntly. Why won’t he take what Ginevra has to offer? What is he bottling up inside? And why is he afraid of a connection between himself and Whisper Who Dares?

All these plot and character threads are neatly balanced with each other, with occasional time for flashes of brightness and merriment. The whole ensemble is set within a deftly painted film-noir milieu, complete with black-and-white movies, fedoras and trenchcoats, and piano-accompanied torch songs at Patrise’s nightclub. Fans of the Bordertown/Borderlands/Life on the Border series will also note an extended cameo by a couple of characters from that world. Whether this is simply an homage, a tip of the pen, or an attempt at actually setting this novel in the Bordertown universe, is difficult to say. But the characters do seem to fit well, both in the setting and the plotline.

By the time the novel wraps up, Ford has also given us a variety of food for thought about the nature of power, about sexuality and what makes us each who we are, and about magic itself. This, in addition to a picturesque setting, a whole slew of interesting and well-drawn characters, and a deliciously gripping plotline that draws from a variety of classic themes. The worst flaw I can think of about this novel is that it’s too damn short — by the time it’s over, you don’t want it to be. We can only hope that Ford will write more tales of Doc Hallownight and the Levee.

Kai MacTane is the webmaster of Freak Nation. He’s not involved in any mystical intrigue, or chasing any elven serial killers, but if he were, he’d want to be as well-dressed as Doc Hallownight.