Book Review

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The Man That Got Away, by Lynne Truss

I wouldn’t go quite as far as the Daily Mail reviewer of this book, that it is a “farce”, knockabout or otherwise, but there are some amusingly implausible elements in it. This is by no means her first fiction book; she is best known as the author of a best-selling book on punctuation, would you believe [in these less grammatically aware days], called Eats, Shoots & Leaves; but it is the second outing for her police series featuring a character whose name is surely chosen to refute nominative determinism: Detective Constable Twitten. This book was published in 2019, by Raven Books, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, paperback ISBN 978-1-4088-9057-8; a further story, Murder By Milk Bottle, has also been published. Aside from the [for me] uncomfortable title of this book*, which could be the author’s little joke, given that popular songs of the 1950s figure in it, I would have expected this to be a well-constructed & articulate story [notwithstanding the “farce” element], which it mostly is [although like 99.9% of the British-writing world, she commences sentences with And & But, but I’ll leave that there], and that is a pleasant change.

Another literary convention of the police procedural which Truss stands on its head is the one which dictates the middle-ranking officers are the cleverest, whereas the top brass are hidebound and often corrupt, and the novices are too green to be of much help. Here, Constable Twitten is not long out of police training at Hendon and only a couple of months into his sojourn at Brighton police, but he is by far the cleverest officer there [although obviously well-bred, evidenced by his habit of using “bally” as an expletive]; his immediate superior, Sergeant Brunswick is well-meaning but slow and somewhat naïve; Inspector Steine [my own preference here is that the final vowel should be pronounced, as with Porsche, given that the word clearly has German origin] is next to useless, and a chauvinist at that, but it is 1957, so not unexpected. The cleverest person in the station is a civilian, the charlady Mrs. Groynes, who might give the convincing impression [to those of a credulous disposition] of being a cheerful & regularly foul-mouthed cockney, but Twitten has every reason to believe that she is a devious criminal mastermind [not mistressmind, then?] who is in the ideal position to have her finger on the pulse, and her ear to the ground, when it comes to access to often confidential information which could be crucial to planning & perpetrating heinous crimes.

Unfortunately, despite Mrs. Groynes being well aware of Twitten’s suspicions, neither of his superiors is prepared to believe him [considering him obviously deluded by a stage hypnotism act], so he has to act alone most of the time. This story is somewhat convoluted, involving confidence tricksters, murder, an old mansion house, behind which [occupying the site of its former orchard & ornamental garden] are a nightclub run by a criminal family, and an adjacent waxworks, in the style of [but nowhere near as good as] Madam Tussaud’s in London, so there are plenty of different characters to remember, but it is an enjoyable romp, even if it isn’t as knowingly [or even archly] funny as Terry Pratchett’s books, for me anyway. All the threads in the narrative are neatly tied up at the end, so that the next story [and there are a couple of chapters as a taster at the end of the version of the book which I read] can follow straight on from this one, without it being a sequel, as such. I’m not sure if this decade is the most popular for books set in Brighton, but there are quite a few of them; Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is actually mentioned as context for one element in this story. I would be happy to read the other two books in this series, anyway.

*This clunky habit would appear to be virtually ubiquitous, so I must be one of the few abstainers who prefer to refer to people as who, not that: I blame my grammar school education. I shall continue to be a voice in the wilderness with this little peccadillo [with no prophetic aspirations, I hasten to add].

Book Review

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World Engines – Destroyer, by Stephen Baxter

I am very happy to state ‘upfront’ that, except for the ending, I have enjoyed reading this book more than any other I have read, of any genre, for a long time; that might seem like a contradiction, but my enjoyment of the main body of the narrative was not diminished unduly by the short final section, which was something of a disappointment. I can’t reveal any details of the final section, naturally wanting to avoid spoilers, but I felt that, after such a comprehensive narrative, in which Baxter has allowed time for the folds in the story to be revealed & explored, the ending could have been longer and more detailed: it was as if he knew a sequel would have been a better way to wrap the story up, or even develop it some more, but in the end, he couldn’t be bothered, or he ran out of steam, so it was just a question of tying up all the loose ends as cleanly as possible. Enough of that for now, though, because you need to know what the story is about! Ahead of the characters & the plot, what I enjoyed about the story was the elements of alternate universes and time periods, rather than time travel per se, but also the fact that the fantasy was very much rooted in the real world that we know, instead of a fictitious universe full of alien races & technology that is unknown to us and, given our current level of knowledge, impossible.

The story starts hundreds of years into earth’s future, the year 2469, precisely, when earth has suffered the climate catastrophe that is now widely predicted. A man is woken from a cryogenic sleep, and it appears that he is a space shuttle pilot from the early days of the 21st century; so, our own time now, but subtly different in the state of space technology (and the political history that has allowed this to be created). He is conversing with a form of artificial intelligence (AI), and he has been woken earlier than he might otherwise have been, given that he suffered a devastating accident which left him very badly injured, because a message has been received from Phobos, one of the satellites of Mars. The main problem, apart from some significant differences in the sequence of events that led up to the sender’s distress call is that it is impossible, because the sender couldn’t be there in the first place, because she is Emma Stoney, the wife of the pilot, Colonel Reid Malenfant, and her ship was lost when it reached Phobos. In this timeline, Mars was already colonised by 2005, and there was “some kind of puzzle with Phobos”, but it was easier to send a dedicated mission from Earth than to have the Mars base colonists do it from the ground. Unfortunately, the problem with Phobos is inextricably connected with an event known by everybody by the name The Destroyer, which is predicted with some accuracy it would seem, by the AIs, to occur in the year 3397, resulting in the destruction of Earth and very possibly also much of our solar system.

Malenfant is sent back to Earth from the moon, where he had been kept in cold storage, and he is assigned a humanoid AI with medical specialities, to monitor & supervise his recovery, and he befriends a young woman who is also assigned to him as a sort of cultural advisor. The Earth of the twenty-fifth century has a well-established resource based economy (the long-term result of a very surprising innovation by one of the best-known 20th century American politicians: and not who you might think!), as money is no longer necessary, apart from occasional exceptional circumstances; the population doesn’t have to work for a living, because all necessities for a comfortable life are freely available: the fact that the population is much reduced as a result of the foregoing upheavals is a positive contributory factor here. Malenfant is curious as to why the populace seems to accept unquestioningly the impending fate of Earth, albeit in the relatively far distant future, but when he speaks to the Earthbound AI, he discovers that it is distinctly worried (displaying a surprising level of human empathy), so he sets out to find out more about the problem with Phobos, which seems to be the root of the danger. Using by then outdated space technology, but with which he is familiar from his own experience, he manages to get to Phobos, which is where the story becomes distinctly strange……

This is about as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but if you enjoy space fantasy fiction and, especially, if you have read any of Stephen Baxter’s other books, either solo or with Terry Pratchett, I am as sure as I can be that you will enjoy this one. The paperback version I read was published in 2020 by Gollancz, London, ISBN 978-1-473-22319-6. This is a book to really luxuriate in, and revel in the way the plot develops quickly enough to retain your interest, but not so quickly as to leave you gasping for breath. As I said, the ending seemed tantalisingly short, but I don’t think it leaves the way open for a sequel: should that be the case and I am wrong, however, I would be eager to read it!