Science Fiction’s “New Wave”—the more experimental period in the late-’60s, early-’70s—is full of now-forgotten authors, such as Doris Piserchia. Piserchia’s career took a while to blossom: while her first short-story, “Rocket to Gehenna,” was first printed in 1966, her writing career didn’t really get started until 1973. That was when she wrote her first novel, Mister Justice; after that, her career took off. In the space of ten years she wrote thirteen novels, most of them science fiction paperback originals for DAW Books. Her works saw her associated with the US New Wave; two of her later novels were horror, under the pseudonym “Curt Selby.” And her exit from the genre was as spontaneous as her entrance: her last book was released in 1983, and that was all–she never wrote another SF piece again.
In an America where the justice system seems to be breaking down, a time-travelling vigilante going by the name Mister Justice is striking at criminals: after photographing their crimes in the past, he arrives in the future to enact revenge. Most criminals meet the same fate as their victims, but after a plea from the President, they are found in front of police stations bound and gagged and loaded down with incriminating evidence. The authorities cannot allow this spate of vigilantism to continue, and a triumvirate of Secret Service agents take young supergenius Daniel Jordan and train him to catch Mister Justice—conscripting a superboy to take on a superman. Meanwhile, one criminal seems to escape Mister Justice’s best efforts, a kingpin named Arthur Bingle, another time-traveller who’s begun to take over the world.
That sounds like a very neat plot structure, but the novel has a number of entwined subplots. Daniel’s training begins at a special school for eccentric geniuses, where he falls into a romance with Pala, an eleven-year-old Swiss orphan. (Shades of van Vogt’s supermen mixed with Heinlein’s inappropriate romances.) Pala is kidnapped during Daniel’s investigation, which throws him into despair. Later in the book, the focus is on Bingle and his cronies as they consolidate power; the government and police have collapsed into little more than licensed brigands, and Bingle’s army of “Numbers” make their move. It’s not clear whether society was already collapsing when Mister Justice began punishing criminals, or if he was part of the tipping point that caused a loss of faith in the justice system; that said, it wasn’t in that great a shape to begin with, when Mister Justice exposes the vice president as a criminal that the justice department has no interest in prosecuting.
The prose style is… unique? Parts of it are very dry and pulpy, simple “He did this. He thought that.” sentences. They become a chore when ten of them are stacked together to form a paragraph. (This is very true for the first chapter and early parts of chapter two; if you bear with it, the writing does improve.) Other times, the prose has a murky, dreamlike quality to it, snippets of greater brilliance that build later in the novel. The characters speak in oblique dialogue, and while it’s easy to piece together their meaning at times, I always felt like there was more going on than the story was willing to tell me. The structure, on the other hand, is always a hot mess. Piserchia has odd preferences for structure and appears to despise paragraph breaks; at one point, between one connected sentence and another is an unannounced time jump of some six years. Some of this can be construed as New Wave experimentation, and with some patience and attention to detail most things are obvious even if they were not spelled out. But it makes the novel a challenging read when the book itself actively works against the reader.
I saw several people refer to Mister Justice as Piserchia’s best novel, which leaves me very apprehensive: I have five more of her books, and if this one is the best I can’t imagine how the others are. Her imagination is beyond brilliant, and the plot is full of excellent elements—the premise is great, many of its plot-threads are full of potential, and with a little work it could have been a New Wave classic of crime and punishment, or a surreal homage to the pulps. It’s a remarkable book. But Mister Justice felt like a novel condensed into a novella, leaving valuable context on the cutting room floor. It’s almost too spontaneous and subtle for a casual read, and won’t go over well with readers expecting traditional structure and coherence, but it could satiate fans looking for a stylistic New Wave SF deep cut that most will overlook. There’s enough positive reviews on the Doris Piserchia website to tell me it does have its fans.