Thrilling mystery of a superhero novel, with potential for this first-time author.
While many of us have cheered hardest at scenes of superpowered human beings locked in mortal combat, pitting super strength against elemental might, it has always been the stories of heroes wrestling with their inner demons that have stuck with us the longest. There’s good reason why Alan Moore’s gritty, noir-inspired Watchmen has been considered one of the genre’s greatest works, or why Batman: The Animated Series with its ever-growing rogues gallery of sympathetic villains strike a chord – they bring out the very human issues and problems that these seemingly invincible beings have.
In much the same vein, first-time author Darren Chen’s The Good Guys adds yet another such narrative to the growing canon. Set in Singapore in the not so distant future, the novel takes place in a reality where superheroes are born from a worldwide conflict, granting them supernatural powers to do battle. After years of saving the world day after day however, these heroes have suffered their fair share of traumas and losses, leaving most of their psychological states in disrepair.
Enter The Vault, an underground facility located deep beneath the Singapore General Hospital, where superheroes take respite and recover with a little therapy. Going only by their code names and encouraged to don a mask, anonymity and discretion is prided, as they embark on their road to recovery. But when a series of fatal incidents happen, the facility goes into lockdown, and the heroes must work together to find the culprit, before they all go mad.
Compared to the more familiar trend of action-oriented superhero fare, The Good Guys takes a far more introspective approach, taking the time to establish character backstories and personalities rather than stringing a series of fights together. While it does start slow, introducing us to the facility through the eyes of a newcomer as he meets the league of extraordinary patients housed there, Darren shows a good degree of confidence in his writing, with a flair for striking descriptions that help illustrate out the superhero world he’s dreamed up. From the mysterious Caretakers in white that run the facility, to the uneasy, claustrophobic air of superheroes wondering what burdens each of them bear, Darren knows how to establish dramatic tensions that imbue the atmosphere with the potential for conflict.
While the psych facility isn’t the most original framework (media such as Legion or The New Mutants have beaten him to the chase), what makes The Good Guys stand out is the murder mystery at its heart. The first death occurs about a quarter of the way into the book, forcing the heroes to investigate and crafting a narrative opportunity for their backstories to be unveiled, as they race against time to prevent more deaths from occurring.
There is an evident love for the subject matter, which while not entirely original in concept, showcases plenty of references and callbacks to superhumans that came before him, whether in comics or film. The codenames feel like something straight out of a comic, from the electrical Blue Kinetic to obscure The Mirror, while one can almost sense a geeky glee from revealing their powers, something that extends to us as we think about them as a core part of their personality.
Our ‘protagonist’ Landslide, for example, has geo-kinesis, and ends up being our more ‘grounded’ everyman. Later on, a twist provides the character an opportunity for redemption, as he claws his way back into the other heroes’ good books. As for his other main characters, Seraph emerges as the most interesting of the three, both in terms of her design (mechanical wings, along with gravity-related powers) and her story, where her loss leaves a heavy psychological weight on her own abilities. Legion, with the ability to copy himself, left less of an impression on us, and often feels emotionally distant, and makes us unable to fully feel his pain.
Situating the book in such a limited space has both its pros and its cons, much like a locked room drama. On one hand, it makes it easy to understand the little space with which the heroes can navigate, like caged beasts fighting their way out. On the other hand, the rich history and world-building told through dialogue is less real, only a distant memory heroes recall in their dialogue, and whose swathe of issues are only touched on via the characters, rather than explored to their limits, something a novel should be able to capture over a comic book.
The story itself is interesting enough to keep us reading to find out who exactly is behind the big plot, but the reveal is a little basic, resorting to a more conventional ending where the ‘good guys’ face the ‘bad’ in a final showdown. It’s a well-written battle scene, with the heroes combining their powers for maximum effect, and we can practically imagine it as a series of moving images or in a comic book. But the final hopeful ending feels a little too convenient, with a few loose ends still unanswered with regards to the facility, and almost betrays the otherwise darker set-up he established at the start.
The superhero novel has always been a tricky thing to navigate, and for a first-time novelist, Darren manages to both pay homage to the genre and subvert the typical image of perfection ascribed to these figures. The thrill of the chase is present, but it is the characters we are hungry to know more about, along with the state of the world they live in. Still, The Good Guys introduces Darren as a new author to watch, especially as a sci-fi/fantasy author in a scene that’s in need of more such stories, and showcases his potential to shine once he’s more assured of his own voice, and fleshing out his characters and world in full.
Recommended for: Readers looking for a darker take on their superhero narratives, but still want an ending where the good guys win.
The Good Guys is published by Epigram and available here