Welcome back, Dave Hutchinson, with a strong contender for my favourite book of the year. When I nattered about Europe in Autumn I looked forward to the possibility of another book one of these days; and here, about a year and a half later, there’s a follow up which is even better; all the beautiful writing of the first book combined with the clear focus that it didn’t find till half way through. Delightfully, Rudi is back, but right at the end, in a little coda which almost cries out for “and together, they fight crime!”
So, we’re back in Europe, fractured as ever, but now we’re poking around things which were only hinted at in the first book. Europe at Midnight tackles head on the force which was round the edges of Europe in Autumn; the Community. Hidden just out of the corner of your vision, the Community is tucked into Europe without being part of it. One part English folly, one part Orwellian creep-fest, one part SF superstate, the Community is bad news delivered in such a hushed and urbane voice that you’re dead before you’ve figured out you should have been worried.
Hutchinson is a writer who’s prepared to let a story take its time; the action of the book unfolds over fifteen years, or seven years depending on where you happen to be standing, and the characters age and feel the weight of time as they wait for the truth to emerge. It’s a long espionage con, so convoluted that Rupert almost steps out of the narrative to wonder if he could pull off one last con so that all the people trying to manipulate him could form a perfect circle with him in the middle. Hutchinson maintains a perfect balance, telling us no more than we need to know to follow the story, and always putting the telling into the kind of conversations and reflections which seem natural to the characters. We all know, from moment to moment, why the world is the way it is; when we talk to our friends, we don’t need to stop and say “And of course Putin, the leader of Russia, is a former KGB officer as well as a genuinely worrying head case” or “This is my iPhone, with which I can not only make phone calls, but check the bus timetable.” And people in imaginary worlds shouldn’t be any different; in Hutchinson’s sideways Europe, people explain things which are genuinely startling to them, and otherwise get on with their complicated lives.
Above all, it’s a wonderfully well written book; I rushed through it in a couple of days, wanting to know what was going to happen next while still wanting to go more slowly so that I could enjoy it for longer. Hutchinson may not have felt the same way, because the ending is still a little rushed compared to the set up. And if I wanted to quibble a little more, it’s a hard Europe for women; Hutchinson has comparatively few good female characters, and the two best drawn ones are written out so abruptly that I was sitting there going, “Hey, no. I wanted more of her.” Then again, I think of all the times I’ve read books and wouldn’t have minded never seeing anyone in them again. And you never know. Rudi came back.