The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

James “Slippery Jim” diGriz is a master criminal living in a near-totalitarian future society. Using his own cunning, and with the help of disguises and gadgets, he outfoxes the lawmen and gets away with the loot … until now. We begin with a bank heist that goes wrong, putting diGriz in the hands of the police. It looks like it’s all over. But then Harold Inskipp, of the elite law enforcement agency the Special Corps, seeing the potential of diGriz, puts him in the agency’s employ. diGriz, who is in fact the hero of the story, changes his criminal ways (sort of) and starts working on the right side of the law. Soon, he ends up on the trail of another master criminal, one who is in the process of secretly building a battleship to wreak havoc across the galaxy. In summary, the story is sort of like James Bond in space. You have the gadgets, the battles, intrigue, betrayal, sensuality.

I had problems with this novel. First, I found myself not entirely warming to James diGriz. It wasn’t so much that he was a criminal. It was all the self-justification of his crimes. He won’t commit murder, but he will lie and steal his way through life, and see himself as quite a moral guy. He is a romanticised outlaw, and there’s just something false about him. Secondly (and this is purely a matter of what you’re looking for in a story), the aspects of the story involving technology and trickery and cunning just didn’t do it for me. There was a hollowness running through it that made me feel like quitting at a few points. Three quarters done, I kept reading purely to finish what I had started.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the closing chapters blew me away. Suddenly The Stainless Steel Rat became a story about people (which is exactly the kind of fiction I like). The cracks in diGriz’s armour were beginning to show. He was in serious danger of losing his way entirely, of partnering up with the very person he had set out to arrest – a power-mad violent sociopath, no less. Furthermore, the sociopath wasn’t allowed to become pure evil personified. Harry Harrison delved into the past, dredging up the things that shape a person into what he becomes, good or bad. Great stuff.

There are eleven Stainless Steel Rat books, of which this is the first. That total doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. It feels like the old scenario that we’ve seen countless times with TV shows. When the producers know they’re onto a good thing, they just keep churning out more and more to fill an audience demand, regardless of how little steam there is left in the original vision. Nevertheless, I might jump into the Stainless Steel Rat universe again sometime. This one was worth reading.