Sunday, November 08, 2009

No ordinary crime...

We know we’ve been quiet for a while, but here is a collection of generally shorter reviews on recent novels that bend the crime genre. Most of these take elements from SF and play around with them in a crime/noir fashion, but the ones that grab our attention here at Crime Scene Scotland, tend to be the ones that do more than simply tell crime stories with Ray Guns. Presented here for your amusement are three of our favourite of the recent crop of genre-bending novels.

(we have excluded the excellent Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre and the sublimely funny The Gates by John Connolly, on the basis that while these novels are brilliant and written by established crime writers, they do not really count as crime novels in any other sense – but trust me when I say that both these books come highly, highly reccomended)

FINCH by Jeff Vandermeer

Underland Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0980226010

A strange mix of hardboiled crime novel and fantasy/sf, Finch is one at first a murder mystery in a strange land that twists three quarters of the way through into a thriller of a very different type. But its credit to Vandermeer’s sheer skill as a writer that he holds the reader very well through this change in pace and tone, setting up a strange inevitability to the way in which his narrative twists and turns.

Set in the mysterious city of AmberGris, the plot follows a murder investigation as a local, human, cop investigates the bizarre murder of a human and a mysterious Gray Cap. In Vandermeer’s world, the Gray Caps dominate the city of AmberGris, ruling over humans, and this double murder is extremely unusual, probably linked – as detective Finch discovers – to rebel human groups whose wish is to overthrow the Gray Caps.

At first, Vandermeer’s staccato prose style can seem a little full on, a little too stylized. However, once you become adjusted to the rhythms, it is very clear that Vandermeer knows what he’s doing, and something in the prose adds to the alien air that permeates the entire novel.

Speaking of atmosphere, it is worth nothing that the world of Ambergris is rich and brilliantly realised. A grungy atmosphere lies heavy in the evocative and spare descriptions of this other world, and at times the reader can almost feel the slime of spores beneath their hands and experience the strange sensation of the organic technology that has replaced nearly every aspect of familiar human creation. It is clear that Vandermeer has created this world in a loving and intricate fashion, although at time for a reader who is virgin to this world, many of the references and history can seem a tad oblique and perhaps confusing to the reader as they try to figure the complex relationship shared between humans, gray-caps and the mysterious “partials”. There have, of course, been two previous novels set in the world of Ambergris, which may answer a few of the more ambiguous questions that readers have, and it is hard to escape the impression by the end of the novel that you have come in at the conclusion far larger than you have any hope of really understanding. That said, a little bit of guesswork and a sharp-minded reader should be able to figure out the basics and get on with losing themselves in the characters and the narrative.

What is particularly interesting with Finch is the fact that the crime/hardboiled elements work very well without tipping too far over the line into cliché. The temptation when mixing crime and SF is often to write a typical crime story with ray guns, but here Vandermeer ensures that the kind of crime and the ensuing investigation could not have worked in a typical and realist setting. This means that for every moment we think we know what is happening, something occurs to throw us off balance. The overarching conspiracy plot feels a little convoluted at times, but again this is perhaps more to do with how deeply the reader involves themselves with the world Vandermeer has created.

Finch is a class act. An intriguing blend of SF and hardboiled procedural, it succeeds through Vandermeer’s skill with narrative and his absolute belief in the world that he has created. Once you get used to Vandermeer’s world and his staccato prose style, you’ll find yourself rewarded with a story that goes beyond its simple opening premise and goes on to play with ideas that are much larger than you could ever expect. This is a story that could have been told in no other way; expands beyond its initial feeling of noir with fungal weaponry to become something far larger, stranger and more intriguing. And it does all of this while maintaining an emotional and very human core.

A genre-bending, intriguing, grimy and compelling novel, Finch is highly recommended.


Alia Mondo Press, 2009, ISBN 9780955868610

Better known for his gently amusing English mysteries featuring DI’s Packham and Mitchell, Coward’s latest novel represents something of a change in direction as he moves the action to London in the near future, where climate change and social upheaval has resulted in a society where horse-drawn transport is the norm, recycling is mandatory, wastefulness is illegal and food and fuel are tightly rationed.

A utopia?

Perhaps, but one that is formed from a series of disasters. And as we quickly discover, Coward is no fool, understanding that even in a society where people are – by necessity – more close knit and involved, there will still be those who attempt to subvert the law for their own ends. The North London Serious Crime Squad still have a full case load. Thefts from rooftop gardens, illegal preachers and now… two murders and a missing child.

Much of the novel plays as a commentary on our current society, and it would have been easy for Coward to play up the cynicism card here, tell us that unless we change our ways, we’re going to be screwed as a people. And for a while it seems as though his society – which harks back to a kind of 1950’s social construct – might be being placed as a possible replacement for the world we live in, now. But thankfully Coward also starts to show the cracks in this environmentally conscious Utopia, both through the attitudes of certain characters and the way in which the narrative resolves itself.

As ever, Coward’s writing is breezy and fast. He is a very British writer in many ways, capturing the very foibles of modern British – perhaps often more specifically English, I would have to say – society. The humour and the satire is gentle in its way, but incredibly effective, and belies the power of Coward’s political leanings which bubble just beneath the surface.

A thought provoking book which works on multiple levels, both as entertainment and commentary, Acts of Destruction is an undeniably British but very accessible novel that demonstrates Coward’s imaginative verve and breezy, extremely readable style.

HALFHEAD by Stuart B MacBride

Harpercollins, 2009, ISBN: 9780007298709

We’re long time fans of MacBride’s cheekily amusing, grotesquely black-comedy police procedurals here at Crime Scene Scotland, and the prospect of the man taking on the world of Science Fiction was something we have been looking forward to for a long time.

In HalfHead, MacBride concerns himself with a near-future Glasgow where the city is divided into two halves, with the underclasses living in cramped, high-rise conditions and occasionally being quelled by the police whizzing in and beating them about before leaving again to let the populace consider their lessons learnt. In this near future, violent offenders are dealt with though extreme surgery that lobotomises them and removes half of their face. These offenders are known as half head, and with their violent instincts (along with most of their personality) removed, they are used as menial workers and seen as little more than window dressing to the world. They move, unnoticed, unappreciated through society, unaware of the world around them in any real sense, existing in a kind of coma state.

Until one of them – one of the worst of them – wakes up.

MacBride’s vision of Scotland in the near future is most dystopian than anything I’ve read in a long time; working under the principle that while technology may change, people will not. As a result, the HalfHead is grimy, violent and often laugh out loud funny in the darkest possible sense. In short, if you’ve been digging his contemporary procedurals, you’ll get a real kick out of HalfHead.

One of the things that really stands out to me about HalfHead is the accessibility of it as a story. Having recently tried and failed to read Charles Stross’s Halting State, I was a bit wary about returning to a near future Scotland. But where Stross loses himself in extraneous details, MacBride simply assures us that this is how the world is and allows his story to unfold. There is no need to explain the inner workings of the Whompers and Thrummers; its enough to know that they are bloody big guns. And while there is clearly a backstory behind the new slums of Glasgow, MacBride merely posits their existence and shows us their effect on his characters, how they react to and talk about their world informs the reader far more simply than pages of clever exposition.

With HalfHead, MacBride shows us his power and his flexibility as an author. Its universe is an intriguing one that I hope we can return to (and certainly, the end of the book sets up some intriguing promises for the future), and I’m sure that fans of both SF and crime fiction will be clamouring to see more from the dystopian insanity of MacBride’s near future Glasgow. Until then, however, HalfHead stands alone blistering, hugely imaginative and smart entertainment with a twisted black sense of humour that would probably make future Glasgow’s most prolific serial killer, Dr Fiona Westfield, very proud indeed.