Warren Hammond's Kop, the first of a series, is an old-fashioned detective noir story. It feels like a Phillip Marlowe take on putting a science fictional polish on an old cop tale from the Depression Era. No, not the one we're going through now. But the one back in the early 20th century.
Let's start with Kop's titular hero, Juno Mozembe. He's a dirty cop. Really, really dirty. The only honest cop on the whole KOP force gets assigned to him and gets dingied up pretty quickly. His partner 25 years back, Paul Chang, runs KOP and has survived in power all these years by making deals with the organized crime on the backwater planet called Lagarto. Lagarto enjoyed a brief fling in interstellar circles as a supplier of superior brandy. Didn't last long. And the human presence on the planet has been anything but successful since. Lagarto's teeming microbial life makes anything technological a nightmare to keep working. It's almost as inimical as Harry Harrison's creation, Deathworld. Just a tad slower, but it's strangling the population that emigrated the slow way from Earth.
Hammond's constantly reminding the reader just how seedy the town is and how much life is a struggle against spoilage of every type possible. Moral bankruptcy is rampant. Crooked cops, out in the open criminality and plain misfortune haunt everyone.
In the midst of this is a struggle between Chang and the town's mayor. Chang's position has weakened considerably due to the death of the town's equivalent of the boss of bosses. There's a power vacuum created by the lack of a successor and the willingness of the godfather from up-river to move to the big city and team up with the mayor to take control of it. A murder is the kick-off to the battle to determine who wins out.
Juno gets assigned raw rookie Maggie Orzo as a partner to investigate the murder. During the course of the investigation, Hammond tells us a lot about Juno, a former enforcer for Chang, who detected more with fists than his mind. Still, he's smarter than he looks, a bit more honest than his past presumes, and he manages to do the right thing more often than not. Hot-tempered with a ready fist raised, his hands are so bad, he can't even hold a gun well enough to defend himself. He ends up being a surprise to Orzo, who comes from money herself. She's aghast at the corruption she sees everywhere, but ends up not quite the naive child she seems to be initially. And no, she doesn't keep her pure rep intact for all that long.
Kop is about establishing levels of bad. There's bad (Juno and Maggie), badder (Juno's first love, Paul, the head of the Bandur Crime Cartel), really bad (too many to mention) and pure evil (an off-world slave and drug smuggler). Not a hero in the lot. Just folks less bad than others.
Which makes the book a fascinating read. I could do without some of the grinding dreariness. I get that Lagarto is a hell-hole and that life's tough. I don't need it hammerd at me time and time again. But after reading the first half-dozen chapters one a night, I finished the rest in one sitting when the action really picked up.
The best analogy I could think of for this book is Chinatown. It's got that grungy, dirty feeling where the bad(dest) guys get their's in the end, but the hero isn't exactly a paragon. It's not quite Chinatown-level quality. But it's a first novel and I look forward to Hammond improving as a writer and maybe letting things in Ex-KOP (the sequel) get a little better for the unfortunate inhabitants of that armpit of a planet.