Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Christopher Brookmyre: Where the Bodies Are Buried, etc

The thing to do is download a sample of Where the Bodies Are Buried and decide whether you like it enough to ignore the problems with the style. Then buy yourself all three books in the sequence; Where the Bodies Are Buried, Where the Devil Drives and Flesh Wounds, because they hang together so tightly and get you so caught up in the central characters that you're going to wind up reading all three in a matter of a week or so.

They're not good books, exactly. The plots are a bit contrived (and go completely against the repeated mantra that Scots criminals don't do subtle) and Brookmyre is developing a terrible knack for writing dialogue that sounds more like human resources' summary of a conversation for the purpose of an employment tribunal. That's sad, because his early stuff crackled; it wasn't any more like what people actually say in conversation, but at least it was funny. 

Despite that, I read them at a gallop, because despite the style problems and the plotting issues, the central characters feel like people. Well, some of them do. Glen Fallan, general purpose omni-menace, feels like Brookmyre's take on Bubba Rogowski. The big selling point is his protégée, Jasmine Sharp, who ought to come across as some kind of Enid Blyton character but instead has an affecting and sensible backstory. When we meet her, she's struggling to keep it together in the aftermath of losing her mother to cancer, and Brookmyre gets across with real force the way in which a life can fall apart in the run-up and aftermath to a parent's death. Jasmine makes sense, and the way in which the first book's plot shakes her out of the slump and gives her life a new direction feels credible as it's happening; there's a happy ending which makes psychological sense even if it's sort of potty as a crime narrative.

The second book picks that ball up and runs with it; Jasmine's not just scraping by as a private investigator, but making a go of it, and somehow Brookmyre sells the idea that she'd be a secret weapon for larger firms full of middle-aged retired cops. Send in a half trained 20 year old actress and no-one will see it coming? I dunno how realistic it is, but for the purpose of the book, it sounds plausible. By the third book, she's just getting a little bit too bad-ass, so part of me is hoping that there won't be a fourth book; the third book wraps up with a bow all the backstory conflicts and bad consciences hobbling the characters, and it's hard to see how Brookmyre could maintain any real tension with that sorted out.

Aside from the style problem, I think my big grump has to be the mystery plotting; everything turns out to be about grudges from long ago in each of the three big mysteries. Normally I don't actually care about the mysteries in mystery books; I'm reading them because the crime-busters are amusing company, and I'd be hard put to tell you what the mystery actually was a week after I've read most of them. But reading three books back to back, I couldn't help noticing that it was always a matter of middle-aged people having their pasts catch up with them. You don't HAVE to have the mystery echo the preoccupations of the main characters; it's just as much fun if it doesn't. You could even argue that it provides a bit of contrast. But Brookmyre didn't go that way.

Also, Brookmyre cheats terribly with his misdirections and timing. So much of the mystery in each book depends on flashbacks not being to when you think they're supposed to be, that I suspect he's made the books impossible to adapt for TV, where the chronology is always much more obvious once you can see the characters and what age they're made up to be.

Still, I don't feel completely stupid; I worked out the twist in the middle of the second book well before it was revealed. And every book has some genuinely affecting set pieces, whether's it Jasmine's grieving at the beginning or Catherine McLeod's moment of truth in the third book. They were worth the time and money, for all the problems.

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