Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks - Christopher Brookmyre
All too often, my favourite authors lose it after a few years, descending from their peak of greatness into churning out tripe, all the more depressing for the contrast with what came before. On reading the premise behind Brookmyre's latest, I was slightly concerned that he was also about to take the plunge - Parlabane talking to us from beyond the grave?? - but I needn't have worried. While the concept of a recently-deceased journalist debunking evil psychics is a bit hard to take at first, it's extremely well handled and much less supernatural than I'd been dreading.
Yes, as Jack Parlabane announces, he is dead. However, the circumstances behind his untimely demise are not revealed until very near the end of the book; the rest is the build-up of how it all came about, starting with his appointment as Rector of Kelvin University and subsequent task of overseeing a test of paranormal phenomena. An American scientist has found a psychic, Lafayette, who claims to be the real deal and is willing to be tested for it in controlled conditions; Parlabane is there to keep an eye out for cheating, because if the guy succeeds, it's the first step to establishing a Spiritual Science chair at the University and putting a nail in the coffin of serious science education. The thing is, Lafayette doesn't really appear to be cheating at all...
The theme of the book ties in very nicely with the anti-pseudoscience movement that's been gathering momentum recently, from Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre through the shows of Derren Brown and Penn & Teller. The "unsinkable rubber ducks" of the title are the fervent believers in the paranormal, who remain convinced no matter how strong the evidence, and Brookmyre paints a very vivid picture of exactly what these "psychics" do to reinforce that belief. Of course, as the bodies mount up, you know that Brookmyre's guys are going just a few steps further than is usual, but there's a lot of good research into normal spiritualist practice, and the profession as a whole comes off looking worse than even Dawkins can portray it.
Criticisms, then? Well, given the presence of Parlabane, we have the usual problem of having his potted history shoehorned in at the beginning, which also contains spoilers for some of the funnier surprises from Be My Enemy, so I'd definitely recommend steering clear of this book until you've read the previous one. Elsewhere, the anti-pseudoscience passages are a little didactic at times and look like they've been lifted straight from the Bad Science columns or the script for The Enemies of Reason - not to detract from the message, but for those of us already interested in the topic, much of this covers old and familiar ground. The style is also a little different from the usual Brookmyre novel - it's all first-person from the perspective of Parlabane, a couple of students and a Daily Mail columnist, the last of which is rather hard on the eyes, being written in stilted Mail-ese. Still, all minor points, and overall it was a damn fine read. Is Parlabane really dead? Well, honestly, do you believe in ghosts?