Monday, September 18, 2006

Incompetence - Rob Grant

Yes, that Rob Grant - the one who used to co-write Red Dwarf before it got crap. The rumour was that Rob Grant wrote the jokes, and Doug Naylor did the plots, and Red Dwarf certainly suffered when the partnership broke up. Naylor was obviously not able to maintain the same quality as a solo act - can Grant do any better?

Harry Salt is an undercover agent in a near-future United Europe crippled by bureaucracy and general incompetence. Summoned to a meeting by his partner, he finds himself on the trail of a serial killer, who seems to be the only person in Europe able to work competently and efficiently. Fighting his way through the morass of European red tape, he has to pursue the killer and uncover the truth, while avoiding being arrested or killed in the process... this largely involves the Da Vinci Code-esque technique of getting into trouble, escaping, getting into more trouble, etc, etc, etc...

The Incompetent Bureaucracy angle is the only thing that raises this above the Generic Thriller Formula, and it's certainly something everyone can relate to. Anyone who has had to deal with estate agents, delivery companies or any kind of call centre will know that there are few things more frustrating than jobsworth morons who are too lazy or stupid to do their jobs properly. However, this has been a comedy staple for so many years now that it's hard to come up with original jokes on the subject - there are only so many times you can refer to "the wrong kind of snow" or EU regulations on wonky bananas before it becomes very old indeed. This book is a few years old now, but I'm willing to bet that the jokes were pretty stale back then, too. On top of this, Grant envisages a society where incompetence is actively rewarded, which sounds suspiciously like the old right-wing mantra of "Political Correctness Gone Mad!" - rarely a good sign in comedy.

Having said this, despite all the clumsy cliffhangers and the often misfiring attempts at humour, it's not that bad a read. Bad comedy is always worse when there are obvious jokes that fall flat, and fortunately the humour here is a little more subtle and understated, so it just seems occasionally absent rather than actively painful. And, while the thriller element has baldly obvious twists and a not-very-surprising denouement, the satire takes an interesting turn towards the end and reverses quite a few of the expectations that were built up earlier. I probably wouldn't read this again, but it's nowhere near as bad as the later series of Red Dwarf.



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