The Blind Spots by Thomas Mullen

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The Blind Spots by Thomas Mullen front cover

American author Thomas Mullen presents a worrying picture of America (and the world) in his latest novel, The Blind Spots (Blind Spots in the US). Moving away from Atlanta in the 1940s and 50s as seen in the Darktown trilogy, we step into the near future with autocratic government, civil unrest, conflict between the haves and have-nots, and a society dominated by big tech. In some senses, perhaps that future has already arrived.

It’s been several years since a phenomenon known as The Blinding – a global pandemic of macular degeneration leading inexorably to blindness. Society is just beginning to recover. The development of ‘vidders’ by Eye Tech allows people who can afford the technology to regain something approximating eyesight. The devices were given first to the emergency services, including the police, before becoming generally available.

Inevitably, abuses occurred. Some officers used their advantage in the chaos to steal, and even to kill. Many died during the mass panic and the government has set up a truth commission to try to reassure the public, but fear and resentment of law enforcement continues.

It is against this backdrop that detectives Owens and Peterson try to police an unnamed city. Owens, the book’s protagonist, is living with PTSD from The Binding, guilt over his part in policing a riot that turned ugly, and grief over the suicide of his artist wife, Jeanie. Then there are the demands of his job and an ambivalent romance with another cop, Amira Quigley.

The partners catch a case which should be open and shut. Dr Madeleine Leila claims she is a witness to the murder of her Bio-Lux Technologies colleague, Dr Ray Jensen. Owens and Peterson don’t believe her story. Leila claims her vidder gave her an image of a silhouette and she can’t identify the killer. But vidders don’t work that way. If Leila’s had been malfunctioning, she would have been blind – the technology just doesn’t exist for someone to selectively black themselves out.

It’s only after Leila is released on bail, then killed by a silhouette right in front of Owens, that the cops realise their error. Tracing Jensen’s last steps leads Owens to the Inner Sight commune, led by the charismatic Reverend Miriam. Inner Sight is an anti-modernity cult that rejects all forms of computerised technology including vidders. The members, all blind, rely on their four remaining senses to survive, and the cult is growing. Owens’ sister, Sarah is a member, and their opposing beliefs have driven a wedge between them.

The Blind Spots is a dystopian thriller, and a change of direction for Thomas Mullen who came to prominence with his very well regarded series of historical thrillers set in the Atlanta PD. The author packs a lot into this novel. Firstly, there is the central mystery leading to the exposure of a conspiracy, although it’s a little disappointing when the explanation of the silhouette killings is revealed. I had also been expecting a deeper conspiracy. Secondly, however, there is a sub-plot about an internal affairs investigation in to the death of Jeanie.

On another level, the author delivers an exploration of the uneasy relationship between technology, commerce and civil freedom. The fragile ties which keep society from degenerating in to disorder and unrest are exposed. There is also an examination of how trauma affects individuals and society as a whole. Mullen doesn’t stint in the action scenes, either, and makes them interesting in the context of the story. Several of the best sequences occur when Owens loses his vision for one reason or another.

Mullen places us by Owens’ side during his investigation. We can feel his uncertainty over the killings and his isolation as Peterson and the police department begin to doubt him. Has he succumbed to stress, or is he lying about the silhouette murders? There is an increasing atmosphere of paranoia as befits a dystopian novel.

Mixing the genres of crime and science fiction, this is assured writing and Mullen proves he is as adept at imaging the future as revealing the past. Fans of William Gibson as well as crime fiction will find The Blind Spots an exciting and thought-provoking read.

For more near-future dystopia, see The Coming Darkness by Greg Mosse.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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