RogerBW's Blog

When the Devil Drives, Chris Brookmyre 19 June 2014

Second in Brookmyre's new literary direction, moving from the tartan insanity of his earlier books to strictly conventional crime writing.

Jasmine Sharp is back, with a good reputation after the events of Where the Bodies are Buried, trying to make a go of her deceased uncle's private investigation firm. A woman comes to her trying to find her long-estranged sister; this leads to a murky past, and questions about just what did happen at that summer rehearsal session thirty years ago. At the same time, Detective Superintendent Catherine McLeod is investigating the murder of a prominent theatrical figure at a remote Scottish estate.

Well, almost at the same time; it's not made explicit, but it becomes apparent at the end of the first part that it was Jasmine's investigation that set off the shooting which opens the book, even though the narratives have been running in parallel up to this point. That's a writing trick which is frankly unnecessary, and smacks of a lack of confidence that the story can carry the reader without having to have a gory scene up front to get 'em hooked. It seems that half the book is backstory and side plot, until suddenly Brookmyre notices that there are lots of punchlines that need to be fitted in and starts ramping up the pace. There are also a discovery hingeing on ballistics which I found frankly unconvincing, a resolution of a red herring that seemed distinctly out of character, and a "surprising" reveal in the book's final paragraph which was what I'd been expecting ever since that particular situation was set up.

Jasmine herself tends to come over as a bit wet; she's got a good reputation, she's competent at all the investigative skills, and she's got the scariest ex-gangster in Glasgow helping her out, but she still keeps feeling sad and scared and useless, and her internal monologue whines a lot. It's not a constant thing, but she's less interesting to be around this time than she was during her previous appearance. In the other strand (and they barely interact), DS McLeod seems to spend half her narrative time on a domestic subplot which goes nowhere and seems to be pure padding, and her underlings have more personality than she does. She's barely on stage, only there because a shooting in real life would lead to a police investigation and therefore it needs to be talked about. Never mind the lack of Parlabane, there isn't even anyone here on the level of Angelique de Xavia or Death's Dark Vale.

There's some good technical material on the day-to-day mundanity of private investigation, and more on the theatrical life; I know a little about the former, nothing about the latter, but it all feels plausible enough. The experienced reader of detective fiction will immediately spot that certain specific things are not mentioned, and will therefore have several solid clues that are not available to the characters in the book. (Though there's one serious dangling thread, one of the people known to have been present at the rehearsal, that for no obvious reason nobody ever even tries to look into.)

Even the rants are sounding less like Brookmyre's unique voice, when he'd build a plot around the problems of the thing that he was decrying (Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks being an excellent example), and more like a generic comedian who was "edgy" in the Eighties and is now just retreading the same old tired material.

It's not altogether bad stuff, but I at least started reading Brookmyre for the Tartan Noir (a close ally of Florida Weird as exemplified by Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey) and the satire, and I think it's a pity he's now restricting himself in this way. Yes, all right, Pandæmonium went altogether too far in the direction of fantasy, but I think this reaction against it has lost some of the sense of parody and enjoyment that for me raised Brookmyre above the ranks of general crime/thriller writers. I'll give the next one a go, but I'm lowering my expectations.

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