Reviews: Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness,

Chris Brookmyre,

Orbit Books

(cover artwork by Steve Stone)

Welcome to Ciudad de Cielo, or CdC, a city in the sky, orbiting high above planet Earth, a shining beacon to the blue world below. Home to the Quadriga, a consortium of four mega corporations and the brightest minds humanity has to offer, working on the most advanced research on – well, near – the planet, with the ultimate aim of preparing a generational starship. This is technology not just to better life on Earth, but to prepare the human race to expand out into the stars. An orbital city of thousands, a crime-free utopia of brilliant minds high above the Earth, bringing knowledge and technology to the world below, like some modern Prometheus, while the other foot is readying the long walk to deep space. The pinnacle of human civilisation’s evolution.

Or so the brochures and corporate PR would have it. As anyone who has ever studied utopias knows, they are rarely perfect, human nature just doesn’t allow for it. And human nature is at the core of Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre is a long-established member of the “Tartan Noir”, the brace of internationally bestselling Scottish crime writers (along with the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and more), but here he’s going science fiction, although for lovers of his more Earthbound crime novels, there’s still much here they too can enjoy.

CdC started as a floating lab facility, with the “wheels” at either end being added as it grew, that central shaft offering micro gravity facilities for some advanced research and manufacture, the wheel sections simulating gravity. And “ideal society” claim or not, like every other human city in history it is stratified and with a hierarchy from the corporate suits and top scientists at the peak, down to mass of regular workers low down. The people who do the actual work – cleaners, joiners, electricians, medics, cops (well, private corporation cops), and where you have all of this population there will be a dark economy – bootleg booze, underground clubs, prostitution, and most regualr folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. The side of life the CdC like to pretend they left below on Earth; this is more Babylon 5’s Down Below than Star Trek’s shiny Federation.

And it’s into this Alice Blake is sent, a representative of the federated world governments, who keep a close eye on the CdC, the corporations forever wary of too much oversight, or intrusion into how they run things. Alice, adopted child of high flying government types, has been raised and schooled to fit perfectly into her niche and she actually believes the PR blurb about this idealised society and the selfless work leading to the stars and humanity’s destiny. But she is also enough of a political animal to realise her boss is sending her to take over the security gig so she can get a close look at how the corporations are running things. But the myth of the crime-free orbital society is about to be brutally shattered – the low level crimes the CdC can hide, but murder? An especially cruel murder and mutilation? No, that’s going to leak out. Hell of a first day for Alice, paired with the security team’s Nikki Freeman, a former homicide detective and only one on the private security force with the experience to work such a case.

But Nikki is also known as “Nikki Fixx”, a go-to, a fixer, a grifter, working both sides of her badge. Everything Alice despises; Alice, in turn is looked down on by Nikki as a privileged and rule-bound type who has no real idea how things work. In the best mismatched cop-buddy tradition they’re going to be flung together and find themselves spiraling down a far deeper rabbit hole than either could have anticipated, an investigation that will snake around itself, from conspiracy theories and power politics at the highest echelons down to the dive bars and hidden underground elements of society, from criminal smugglers to secretive elite scientists and everything in between, Alice is going to get a first-hand view of the reality of the society on this orbiting citadel of humanity.

I’m not going to go too much into the murder investigation and where it leads, far too easy to blow some spoilers that way, but for anyone who has read Brookmyre’s crime novels, you’ll already know that you are in very fine hands here regarding a good murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. But as with his terrestrial novels, Brookmyre delights as much in the details and the way these details and the events around them can reveal human nature in all of its many facets, and that is compelling, from the highest, elite segments to the lowest, and the elements of life that connect them all, one way or the other.

It’s a story which also questions the nature of humanity, from Alice, brought up in a very different setting from the likes of Nikki, with her by the rules, idealised view of how it should all be, to Nikki, who has seen how much of it really works, the dirty, oily engine under the gleaming bonnet of the car, and then those in positions of power, from crime gangs to the corporate and scientific leadership, and what they want their orbiting society – and eventual starship colony crew – to be. And it questions if you can really make people into moulds or if human nature will always assert itself – and if that is a good or bad thing, while also, like much of science fiction, using that future society as a mirror to observe aspects of our own contemporary world, from the haves and have-nots, the corporations straining to be free of government oversight, the bulk of people waiting for the “trickle down” effect, the role of technology in society (for good and ill) and more. It’s a rich brew, giving a real feeling of a near-future society you can believe in, humanity in a warts and all way, allied to a compelling and twisting narrative of murder and conspiracy.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

When the nightmares leak out into the streets: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters,
Lauren Beukes,
HarperCollins

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There’s a short version of this review which runs something along the lines of South African writer Lauren Beukes has been sent personally by the Dark Forces from the Infernal City to scar the mind’s inner eye with a scalpel of sharpened words. Although if Lauren is sent by demonic forces she’s very personable and has excellent taste in footwear. And besides, joking aside, from me saying a writer can scar your inner eye is a compliment. In Zoo City then more particularly with her last novel, the intensely brutal and powerful The Shining Girls (which made by 2013 best of the year list), she has displayed an uncanny knack for not just being able to conjure up images and scenes which stick in the reader’s mind long after finishing the book, they really get under your mental skin. In Broken Monsters she develops this skill to peel back the reader’s cognitive functions with a fine blade: the compelling main narrative flows over the cognitive components of the brain but the imagery leaks beneath the foundations of that logical faculty and seeps into the parts of our mind where imagination and it’s twin offspring Wonder and Terror live. This is a book which works as much on the logical strength of a powerful detective tale narrative but simultaneously works by engaging the darkest parts of our imagination; the combined effect is devastatingly powerful.

It seems pretty much everything in Broken Monsters is a struggle. The lead detective, Gabrielle Versado, has had to struggle against macho misconceptions about gender roles in the homicide department, as well as racial ones, while also struggling with a broken marriage and trying to be a single parent (her clever, determined but impulsive daughter Layla is also struggling, to come to terms with no longer being a happy family, with her mother often being dragged away by work pressures and the usual coming of age problems any teen in any city has). She and the entire department are in an eternal struggle, not just against crime in a city riddled with violent acts but with trying to bring order to a city that itself is struggling to hold together – Detroit. And then into this comes Clayton Broom, a man who has failed at relationships, at fatherhood, work and art, a man struggling to try and make sense of his life but lacking the ability to really understand and fit in. Until a car accident changes his perspective and he begins to start using his ‘art’ to reshape the world to how he thinks it should be. It’s not long after this that the first murder victim is found, his first attempt to bring his ‘message’ to the world and try and change it.

A body of a young boy.

Or, more accurately, half a body. The lower half is gone, replaced with those of a young deer, fused to the boy’s torso, then left posed to be found.

The scene is described in terms that really bring home the horror of this, not just of the deliberate, wanton taking of a life – a child’s life at that – but desecrating the corpse in this manner. Beukes captures the mindset of a group of big city detective battling to develop any possible clues into something they can work with, to take the monstrous but categorise it into areas of logical enquiry they can use, at emotional arms-length, to focus on the case and start working out why the killer did this, what it tells them, how they can use this to hunt him. Serial killer? Twisted trophy hunter fed up stalking animals, now turning to people? Is it race-driven? Sexual? Could it be some sort of ritualistic thing – a Satanic cult, Voodoo? You can almost hear the mental clicking of gears as the detectives take a situation that should never happen and try to apply their tried and tested methods on it to make sense of something that may be beyond sense, to categorise it, analyse it and follow those clues. But what if it is something else altogether?

What starts as a brutally compelling police-procedural story soon starts to morph – it will surprise no-one who has read Beuekes’ other books to learn that no single genre label can contain her work, and this is as much a horror story and a dark fantasy novel (reminding me sometimes of the dark horrors the likes of Tim Lebbon can conjure) as it is a detective story. When we see some of the events from Clayton’s increasingly disintegrating point of view we see that to him his horrific murders and bodily mutilations and alterations are not killing – they start as a sort of art, but not just art, this is primal art, art as a form of magic, as it was in the earliest days, when painting a deer on a cave wall was not just art but sympathetic magic, trying to capture something of the essence of that creature being depicted and to use it for understanding, shaping the world and power. The writing is deliciously dark – these are nightmares leaking out of the darkest places of a twisted, delusional mind of a man turned murderer, but as we are drawn deep into this heart of darkness it becomes increasingly difficult to tell nightmare fantasy from hard, cold reality in the semi ruined streets of Detroit. How much of this is the warped imagination of a sociopathic killer trying to somehow justify what he is doing to himself? And could it be real? What if others start to feel the awful, dark presence of what he is doing and how it can change the world around him and his ‘art’? It this shared delusions? Is there something else here? Psychotropics? Or something far worse, darker and unnatural…


(Lauren Beukes with artist Inaki Miranda at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my own Flickr)

I won’t delve any deeper into that, save to say Beukes manages to both have her cake and eat it in the very satisfying manner in which she explores the escalating situation and offers up different aspects for the readers to draw conclusions (and doubtless to argue with one another over aspects of what was what). Running through this main narrative thrust there are other elements – a sexual predator her daughter and friend bait with the aim of publicly shaming, her daughter’s friend in her seemingly perfect family but nursing her own dark secret, the burned out, failed journalist Jonno, come to the decaying city of Detroit and trying to reinvent himself as a new media guru, feeding off the increasingly bizarre murders. The scenes where Beuekes depicts various forms of new media and social media circling these events, exploiting them (and traditional media trying to feed off it like carrion) are bitingly realistic – the instant rush to judgement on comments online posted by people who don’t know what really happened but straight away have to shout loudly about their opinions (often in banal, badly spelled ways, frequently in vile, violent form) are sadly far too realistic. But those elements aren’t just added for a bit of detail or verisimilitude, oh no, Beukes is too good for that, she also starts weaving these new and social medias into the story in an unusual form that contributes to the main narrative, and how those changing media and technologies alter our view of the world around us, and our morality.

Even for an old hand at horror like me (happily raised in the pre-legislation era of the Video Nasties where you could watch anything) this is a deeply disturbing read. Somehow Beukes manages to craft not just the awful horrors of the brutal world big city detectives have to deal with on a daily basis (and she depicts the toll it takes on them) but then make this worse with an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of some unspeakable, un-knowable, un-nameable horror that is leaking out from realms that should not exist except in our collective nightmares, bleeding into the real world on an artist’s palette that uses blood and body parts instead of oils and brushes. And it is utterly, utterly compelling while making parts of your brain twitch, you simply can’t pull away from it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Big Bad Wolves

Big Bad Wolves,
Directed by Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Starring: Guy Adler, Lior Ashkenazi, Dvir Benedek

big bad wolves film poster

Here’s a rather unusual and utterly compelling film from Israel which came my way courtesy of the folks behind the UK Jewish Film Festival (, which runs from 30th October to the 17th November, Big Bad Wolves screens there on November 14th): Big Bad Wolves. Directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado it has been doing the film festival circuit, where it has been picking up some good word of mouth, not least from a certain Quentin Tarantino. Partaking of black comedy, crime and horror and with a central premise that revolves around the murder of a child I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this film at all – as it turned out I sat glued to the screen throughout.

The film starts with an almost idyllic scene of childhood play, a group of kids having fun together, playing hide and seek in the woods, two young girls happily running around looking for a spot to conceal themselves while their friend counts down to his search. It should be a happy scene, but despite the playful children there is a shadow looming even in these opening few minutes, from the ominous music to other signifiers – the little girl in red skipping through the woods instantly hints at not just a fairy tale edge, but the darker version of the old fairy tales, the type which were much nastier, murkier and often bloodier, before they were cleaned up to become the tales we tell children today. This dark fairy tale vibe continues when the children think they have found their young friend’s hiding place, but all they find is a single red shoe – a disturbing play on the ruby red slipper – which belonged to her; the girl in the red dress is gone…

This opening credits sequence is the trigger for the later events, with a team of Israeli detectives trailing the only suspect. There is no proof and the only circumstantial evidence is one child who thinks they saw a man matching this suspect’s description near the area. But, as some detectives do, our cops have decided already, with no evidence, that this man – a local teacher, as it turns out – is guilty, and they are going to get a confession out of him, even if they have to beat it out of him. However, they are not aware a kid has seen them dragging the teacher into an abandoned building and is covertly filming this abuse, which finds its way onto the internet in short order. The detective, Miki, who decided on this course of action is busted, not just for his abuse of power, but because their heavy-handed actions mean that the suspect – their only suspect – has to be released and left alone. Shortly after this the girl’s body is found – minus her head – and Miki is, understandably, kicked off the force.

This does not stop Miki though – he is still convinced the quiet teacher is his man. Word gets out about the suspicions – still with no proof – and he is suspended from his school work, his reputation ruined through only hearsay. Miki begins to tail him on his own time, planning to kidnap his suspect, take him to a remote location and torture the confession he desires from him. What he doesn’t realise is that at the same time Tsvika is following them both – the father of the murdered girl, with an agenda of his own, and now he has both the teacher and Miki in his sights with a cold, implacable determination to do what he thinks he has the right to do…

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I’m not going to blow any of this hugely compelling and incredibly tense film for you by risking any possible spoilers. Suffice to say what follows is bloody, painful and excruciating. With no actual proof, just a child’s possible description of someone who passed by the area, actions are set in motion, judgements are made based on anger and revenge rather than rational thought, let alone due process of law. And the viewer is almost complicit in this, the film-makers cleverly playing on competing and contrasting emotions on the part of the audience. On the one hand we’re utterly horrified at the thought of using torture on someone, especially when that person may well be innocent and have no confession to make. But at the same time if this man has committed the abuse then slow murder of a child there is a part of the audience that also wants to see him suffer and pay for his crimes. And since we don’t know for a long time which side of the innocent-guilty divide our little teacher stands on this creates an excruciating emotional tension which leave you totally immersed in the story.

The film leavens these dark moments with a black sense of humour which means that despite the violence and the heavy duty emotional subject matter there are lighter moments and scenes to offer some relief. There are also, like any good fairy tale, layers of metaphor layered through the story. On the simplest level there is the obvious dichotomy between straight out vengeance and the civil rule of law which all societies have to live by or else descend into the chaos of blood-grudges and lynchings. We may want the bad guy – assuming he is the bad guy – to pay, but we know it has to be by the book, no matter how much we may want to give in to the animal urge to simply hurt back (and what if we are wrong? That’s why we need courts, evidence, trials). Behind this you could also read some of these events for a commentary on the post-9/11 world, where even supposedly civil, law-abiding democracies have secretly reverted to the vile practice of torture to extract confessions, or even on the relationship between Israelis and Arabs and how easily those in power can abuse that power over others (always in the name of the greater good, of course, they still see themselves as the ‘good guys’). This is reinforced by Tsvika relocating to a remote home in a mostly Arab area, secluded, where he can plan to carry out his ‘interrogation’ without anyone nearby hearing the screams…

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It’s a hugely satisfying and gripping film, twisting the audience emotionally so they find themselves supporting both sides at differing points in the film, a real morality morass with no clear totally good or bad characters or motivations (the murdered girl’s father Tsvika acts with such quiet restraint rather than anger and shouting that he comes across as more terrifying than the supposed murderer in many scenes). The murders themselves happen off-screen, instead we get a description of them during the attempts to force a confession, and somehow this is even more horrifying, getting under the viewer’s skin more than a straight visualistion of the deaths may have done. Big Bad Wolves is stylish, satisfying, utterly compelling and it puts the audience through the emotional wringer. Seriously recommended.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Ghosted #1

Ghosted #1

Joshua Williamson, Goran Sudzuka, Miroslav Mrva

Image Comics

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We open with a man in prison, Jackson T Winters. Right from the first page (a full page depicting Jackson walking past one cell as a huge, violent inmate forcibly violates another and threatens him with more of the same) we can see this isn’t the cosy crook-nest of Porridge, this is a brutal prison, where fellow prisoners turn on each other frequently. Jackson is biding his time, but not, as you’d expect, dreaming of freedom – he carries guilt from his last crime job, and in his mind as he thinks about how awful it is within those walls and bars is “the only thing that gets me through this is the reminder that someday I’m going to die…”

Not a happy bunny then, even by prison standards. When a full scale blooody riot breaks out Jackson soon discovers it is a jaibreak – for him. Enter Anderson Lake, a woman clad in black and festooned with weapons which she seems to have an uncanny ability with, like a cross between the Punisher and Black Widow. She frees him but knocks him out – when he comes to he is in a opulent manor, full of arcane curios, the collection of a rich eccentric interested in the occult – a nice double page spread packed with some interesting details for eagle-eyed fans to watch out for – such as the ‘muscle’ armour helmet from Coppola’s Dracula, the puzzle box from Hellraiser or the arm-shaped candle sconces from Cocteau’s achingly beautiful La Belle et le Bete.

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The house and the collection belong to Markus Schrecken (another horror reference, an obvious riff on Max Schreck, the original Nosferatu actor) and he is indeed both rich and eccentric, with an eye for collecting supernatural items. He has had Lake bust him out because he is the best thief he can think of and he wants him to assemble a team to steal something to be the crowning glory of his collection – an actual ghost. From a multiple muder home which will soon be torn down, no less.

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The rest of this first issue is taken up with Jackson’s reluctant agreement but on his own terms, and the ineviable putting together of a team of folk with different specialities that any good heist plot requires. And despite the supernatural overtones, this is a heist plot, a classic one really, the con offered a shot at escape if he comes through on a peculiar and extremely difficult last job. And the team handle it with the swagger and smoothness this sort of plot requires – despite having been beaten and just broken out of prison Jackson still plays it oh so cool, naming his terms (which include a 50s style hand-made suit “something Sinatra would have worn – class!) and wanting to pick his own team before their first planned scouting of the supposedly haunted mansion.

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It’s a hugely enjoyable read, think Ocean’s Eleven meets the world of Mignola’s Hellboy, and while it may (in the first issue anyway) be largely following the standard Great Heist script, that’s what it needs to do and in any case it’s what the reader wants it to do at this stage. Fun and interesting, and certainly has me wanting to read the second part, which is always the mark of a good first issue.

Moat

So after several days of worry for the local residents and a great boon to the rolling 24 hour news channels, Moat is apparently surrounded tonight with armed police all around him and apparently ‘negotiating’. He has his own gun to his head, he’s a psychopath who has shot three people and promised to attack more, blames the police and society for his own violent acts and they are ‘negotiating’? Funny, when they have the wrong, totally unarmed and innocent suspect the police seem able to shoot to kill multiple times, but a murderous, gun-toting, steroidal psychopath they’ve hunted for days who ends up surrounded and holding his own gun to his own head they ‘negotiate’ with? If he was a street protesting woman some large copper would have thumped her with a baton by now (secure in the knowledge he wouldn’t ever get into trouble for it), but a gun totin’ muderous creep they handle with kid gloves? Ours is a very odd law enforcement system. Meantime the rolling news channels are in an ecstasty – oh god, but how they love something like this that they can report on for hours live…

Memorial stolen

Auchengeigh miner's memorial 1
Only a few days ago I was out with my dad and took some photographs of the new statue that was part of an upgraded memorial to the miners who lost their lives in the old Auchengeigh pit. The site commemorates two disasters, from the 30s and the 50s, the latter being especially bad with a large loss of life, men lost in the cold and dark deep beneath the earth. A bloody horrible, dirty, hard, dangerous job at the best of times. The statue of the miner with his head bowed was unveiled only in September to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1959 disaster. And then the other day it was stolen. Yes, stolen. Some utter lowlife scumball bastards stole a memorial to the dead, presumably for the value of the metal.

There are still people today who remember lost loved one who were victims of that disaster, but that won’t matter to these evil bastards. They must have been planning it, they would have needed heavy equipment to remove it. It was there when folks left the nearby Miner’s Welfare the night before and was gone when a local drove past early next morning. I hope they catch the bastards and get the statue back, but more than likely they have some git as unscrupulous and evil as them who is prepared to melt it down for the scrap value.

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It had been raining just before I took this picture and I thought the effect in the close-up was quite good, like a cross between the sweat of hard labour and tears. Its hard not to look at the miner, head bowed and not think of my own papa whose body was broken from work in the mines.
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Blair aide arrested

It was highly amusing to read not only about one of Tony Blair’s top aides, Ruth Turner, being arrested by the Metropolitan Police investigating the scandal of the cash-for-peerages allegations (imagine that, corrupt politicians!!!). It was even more amusing to read the panicked but arrogant responses from senior government figures who were outraged that Turner was arrested in an early morning swoop by police at her home – amusing because early morning swoops are exactly what the police do to families with children that the Home Office has decided to boot out of the country (actually then there are more officers and it is even earlier in the morning, often breaking down the door, so she got off rather lightly) and this is a tactic the government finds perfectly acceptable, even when applied to young, terrified refugee children. No double standards there then.

The outrage and comments then flowing from government sources after the even also seemed to indicate that they think they and their friends are above the law and should never be treated in this manner, which does rather reinforce the public impression that they are as corrupt as Caligula, with senior police officials commenting that the remarks from ministers seem designed to interfere with and put pressure on the officers investigating the whole corruption scandal. If the Labour party wasn’t so deep in debt they’d probably try and do what Tony’s good mate, former Italian PM Berlusconi did and just buy all the media to control the story then rewrite the laws to make sure he wasn’t done for anything. And if that fails, try fainting in front of the cameras a few days before a trial so everyone thinks you are too ill to stand for it…