Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Be My Enemy - Christopher Brookmyre

"...Just because you disagreed with the Poll Tax and detested Margaret Thatcher--"

"Detested is a little inappropriate," Parlabane said. "Maybe closer to say that I spent the entire Eighties wishing I was pissing on her rotting corpse."

"Which, to underline my point, still didn't make the KGB nice people."

"Agreed, but my point was that there were extremists at the top of the command chain. Margaret Thatcher being the topical example. My understanding of politics may have been less sophisticated back then, but even looking through the retrospectoscope doesn't change my perception of someone who really did render the political world black and white. She cultivated division as a matter of policy, talking about whether you were 'one of us' or 'the enemy within'."

"And you miss that, that's where we came in, yes?"

"Yes. No. I mean... Fuck, I don't know. Maybe I'm starting to feel my age, but I wish I was still as sure of what I believed today as I was back then; or even just as sure of what I hated. Believe me, Tim, it's tough being a bleeding-heart liberal in a world full of bampots."

Jack Parlabane is back - the cynical, cat-burgling investigative journalist who starred in three of Brookmyre's earlier books, uncovering the murderous money-making schemes of evil Tories while dodging bullets all the way. He's an entertaining character, but his first few books are among my least favourite of Brookmyre's, mainly because his political rhetoric tended to get rather shrill and detract from the plot; whatever your stance, there are only so many times you can hear about MURDERING TORY BASTARDS before it gets annoying. Here, though, the debate has matured considerably, and involves characters from all points on the political spectrum. And because it's Brookmyre, the applications of political theory are highlighted by a stand-off in a remote Scottish mansion against a pack of hitmen wielding claymores.

Without wanting to give too much away, the story takes place in McKinley Hall, where a disparate group of people have assembled for the launch of a new weekend team-building course - the PR girls, some flash city-types, others from further down in the corporate hierarchy, and of course Parlabane, who only accepted the invitation so he could write a story slagging them all off. He has also brought along his friend Tim Vale, the elderly and distinguished ex-spy previously encountered in One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night - one of the many unfortunate self-references that Brookmyre has chosen to scatter throughout the book. After an entertaining but unremarkable start, with a game of paintball and minor upheavals in the domestic staff, the team-building turns sinister when mysterious soldiers start taking potshots, and the staff start disappearing... The buildup to the main action is very deftly done, with the growing personality conflicts and hints that certain characters may have a darker past than they're letting on, not to mention all the sly references to the range of mediaeval weaponry arrayed about the walls, and the payoff is certainly worth it.

Brookmyre's genius with character comes into play yet again, and is helped by Parlabane's retreat from centre stage. We do have Jack's scathing views on Rory Glen, the smarmy advertising exec ogling the ladies, but then we get Rory's point of view and find out that he's actually quite a decent bloke; we also get an outsider's view of Jack himself, which is not at all flattering. Even the bad guys get some viewpoint chapters, and it's quite worrying to see how well they can justify their atrocities to themselves. There are some good little insights into the minor characters, too, from Rory's assistant Liz excising her conscience at the expense of her boss's dignity, to timid Sir Lachlan clinging to his tartan like some kind of security blanket - they all feel like real people, not just ciphers to be moved around and/or killed off as the plot demands.

If there is a downside to the book, it's the number of autocannibalistic references to Brookmyre's other work, particularly the previous adventures of Jack Parlabane. Much of his initial conversation with Vale consists of "Let's recap on all the people who have tried to kill me in the past" - presumably this is for the benefit of people unfamiliar with the earlier Parlabane books, but on the first couple of readings, I found it annoying and unnecessary, especially as I hadn't found those books to be all that great in the first place and really couldn't be bothered trying to remember who George Knight was. However, that takes up such a small fraction of the story that it's easy to ignore on repeat readings, and this is a book I reread often. For a feelgood, funny, action-packed and extremely intelligent thriller, this is highly recommended.



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