The Body Scout
- By Lincoln Michel
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Josh Denslow
- October 16, 2022
Despite its many wild parts, this sci-fi/murder mystery comes together in an utterly satisfying whole.
Raymond Chandler walks into a bar. A robot dressed as a 1920s flapper informs him the place has an anti-comm field, so he’s going to have to stay sharp. He meets Isaac Asimov at a table, and they begin to concoct a story. A real humdinger of a mystery.
Suddenly, Max Barry arrives to lighten the mood. And he’s brought along George Saunders. Within an hour, they have the whole book mapped out beginning to end. Then they smoke a round of eraser cigarettes and get so mellow that nobody ends up writing it.
Good thing Lincoln Michel comes along to take it over.
The Body Scout is a murder mystery, as well as a dire climate warning and a disquisition on body dysmorphia and a stark depiction of a futuristic dystopia and a saga about family. And it manages to accomplish all this while being funny and sobering and slightly uncomfortable.
Oh, and it’s about baseball, too.
Our sad-sack gumshoe is Kobo, a scout for the Yankees. But his prospects aren’t players. He’s scouting scientists. Instead of watching squeeze plays, he pores over footage of a young nervous-system expert gliding around centrifuges “as easily as an ice skater in the rink, holding vials and pipettes as if they were extensions of her limbs.” That’s because players on the biopharm teams are “blocks of marble. The drugs sculpted them into stars.”
JJ Zunz, Kobo's adoptive brother and best friend, is one of those stars on the Mets. As the playoffs begin, he dies in an agonizing way right there on home plate in front of the world. Now, Kobo is left trying to piece together what happened.
The story unfolds like a classic mystery. Kobo, down on his luck and in life-threatening debt to Sunny Day Healthcare Loans, moves episodically from a bar with the aforementioned anti-comm field to a secret club where they pump your mind into another human to a house that Zunz had always kept hidden from him.
Along the way, Kobo rekindles a love affair with another scout (who may or may not be helping him solve the mystery), two half-robotic former conjoined twins attempting to extract what Kobo owes in loans, a skinny girl with no body modifications who might have to start calling Kobo uncle, a couple of Neanderthals, and enough tiny robotic creatures flitting about that you inadvertently start swatting the air around you.
As Kobo jumps from one scene to the next, slowly unfurling the strange secret life of Zunz and what led to his murder, we also learn a lot about our hapless hero himself. The way he lost his family and was adopted by Zunz’s. The way he kept modifying his own body as he played in the Cyber League before that league was dissolved and they stopped letting cyber players in altogether. The way he idolized his brother. The way he stopped believing in himself.
Just as you would expect, if he solves this case, he might just save himself.
The story moves at breakneck speed, introducing an oddball assortment of characters and an even odder future world literally covered in dense smog. I found it hard to keep track of it all at the start, but Michel’s precise descriptions and sometimes-riotous dialogue carried me through.
If you’ve made your way through other mysteries, you won't be surprised by the convoluted explanations or by the way conversations seem to be hiding just enough to send poor Kobo down another path. You’ll cherish it. Because even if things get a little muddled or overly wacky at times, there’s a humaneness there, a warmth I found comforting.
The world in The Body Scout may be unreal, but the novel’s emotion and heart are hyper real. At a certain point, I wasn’t even concerned anymore whether Kobo was going to find the murderer. I just wanted him to be happy with himself.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]
Josh Denslow is the author of the collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books). His debut novel will be here soon.