Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Highland Fun And Games

"If you judge a book by the cover"

Terrorism is probably not the first subject that most people would want to base a comedy book around, especially if your timing is so unfortunate that you publish such a story in 2001, the year of 9/11, but that is what Christopher Brookmyre did with the brilliant A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away.

The first editions carried the back-cover come-on, “Terrorism – it’s the new rock ’n’ roll”, which made perfect sense in the context of the book, but was a bit too close to the bone at the time. Obviously Brookmyre had no idea of the events that would unfold when writing the book earlier that year, but his message is possibly even more potent after that terrible tragedy, as he attempts to debunk the mystique surrounding terrorists, painting them as arrogant, self-obsessed egomaniacs, sublimating their craving for mass acclaim into violence.

Big Boy is a dark comedic novel that is enormously funny, but is never flippant when it comes to the real issues. The author undermines the attention-seeking terrorists with scathing humour, which makes the story a joy to read. Brookmyre himself described the book as “High Fidelity with machine guns”, as it deals with male obsessions and obsessiveness.

Christopher Brookmyre is a Scottish novelist who has published thirteen books. You are always guaranteed lashings of caustic wit mixed with biting social comment set against a background of crime thrillers, action adventures and political intrigues. His books are redolent with arch Scottish cynicism and laced with strong observational humour. Brookmyre writes with real attitude, demonstrating exhilarating linguistic fluency and an irreverent, subversive intelligence. Most of all, he is hilariously funny with his characters possessing an enviable razor-sharp wit.

"Watch out for the Glasgow Kiss"

Brookmyre is not afraid to write what he thinks with his characters often expressing outrageous opinions that are likely to provoke an extreme reaction one way or the other. Although the writing can be quite graphic as well as being controversial, it is never gratuitously offensive. There’s always a rationale or a point being made by the humour, even if it’s a fairly challenging one. Brookmyre summed up his attitude when he told his wife that his headstone should read, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke”. His characters may be larger than life and the body count of his books may be high, but the narrative is always rendered with total plausibility. In fact, despite appearances, his novels are actually quite moralistic with the good guys winning in the end. As Brookmyre himself says, “there’s a difference between morality and judgementalism”.

Brookmyre’s memorable characters and snappy dialogue make you think of the famous American satirist Carl Hiaasen, while Colin Bateman would also be a kindred Celtic spirit. His style has been labeled “Tartan Noir” in tribute to his darkly comic worldview that features a cast of disrespectful, sharp and achingly funny characters. There is a real Scottish-ness to the narrative, which may remind you of Trainspotting, though Brookmyre’s work rarely has the desperation of an Irvine Welsh tale.

Glasgow slang is used a lot, which not only adds richness to the story, but also encapsulates a street-wise attitude that is indigenous to that city. Glaswegians don’t much go for subtly hinting at their beliefs and opinions. As P.G. Wodehouse said, “it’s seldom difficult to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance”. The Glaswegian dialect is also liberally peppered with expletives and the conversations are indeed extremely sweary. For example, when one character wants to start using foreign terms, he talks about the “raison fucking d’etre”.

"The Ayes have it"

Brookmyre’s books have been described as comedy-thrillers, but they are more complex than that. Yes, at times the story will be a straightforward comedy, at other times a psychological thriller, but it will also be a vicious satire and much more besides in a multi-layered narrative. The key point is that the different elements enhance each other instead of distracting the reader. The reality is that Brookmyre belongs to no single genre. Take the plot for A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, which is a wonderful mix of Scottish everyday life and global violence with Brookmyre skewering parenthood, amateur rock bands, on-line gaming and international terrorism (amongst other things).

At its heart, it’s about two friends, the hopes and dreams they had when they were students, and how they reconcile that to what their lives have actually become. When they were young, they thought their future would be paved with gold discs, gigs and groupies. Simon Darcourt has actually achieved success in rock star terms: massive financial rewards, global travel, adrenalin rushes and even fame (or at least notoriety). The only trouble is that his route has been that of serial killing, mass slaughter and professional assassination. More hits than The Beatles – a performer guaranteed to blow you away.

On the other hand, his former band mate, Raymond Ash, is an English teacher weighed down with the responsibilities of fatherhood, so it’s little wonder that he takes refuge in the virtual reality of on-line gaming. Thus, he assumes that he is seeing things when he glimpses Simon walking through Glasgow airport, given that Darcourt was killed in a plane crash three years ago. There follows a band reunion of sorts, even though theirs was not exactly an amicable split, as Darcourt decides to settle the old score by incorporating his old mucker into his latest terrorist plot, which Raymond bravely attempts to foil with the help of feisty policewoman Angelique de Xavia.

"The Black Spirit?"

Simon Darcourt, the “Black Spirit”, is obviously a monster, but he’s superbly well written. At first, his scything observations are quite seductive, and you might find yourself quietly sympathising with his point of view, but Brookmyre gradually cranks up Darcourt’s depravity until you see him for the vile creature he really is. Even though he notches up countless victims and does the most inappropriate things, Brookmyre’s humour is so good that we can laugh without worrying about the growing pile of corpses. However, you might have to confront a few prejudices …

Our heroine is Angelique de Xavia (rhymes with saviour), a diminutive but deadly police officer, who has to confront some discrimination herself. As a black, Ugandan-Asian, not to mention Rangers supporter, she is subjected to constant teasing about her height, sex and race, even though you would think that her martial arts expertise may give her colleagues pause for thought. This lady cop is a fantastic Lara Croft style character, combining language and combat skills, and features in future Brookmyre books The Sacred Art Of Stealing and A Snowball In Hell.

Raymond Ash is an unlikely hero, which is a feature of Brookmyre’s novels. All his heroes are relatively normal, who tend to find themselves in Die Hard situations. Brookmyre has said that he likes to set up a massive scale concept and then throw a very ordinary character into the mix, as readers have more fun imagining how either themselves or people they know would react in such a bizarre situation. In the same way that the villains are strangely likeable, the heroes are normally slightly untrustworthy or at least have an edge to them.

The best known is Jack Parlabane, the investigative journalist, whose unorthodox methods and anti-authoritarian attitude have featured in many of Brookmyre’s novels. Named after a Robertson Davies character, Parlabane is a guy who gets to say all the smartarse comments that you wish you could think of – and have the balls to make (l’esprit d’escalier, as the French would say). The hero is a vital element of Brookmyre’s approach, namely to take the classic action thriller and make it more human: “guns and toys” for the boys without the vigilantism and simplistic morality.

"The Hay of Pigs"

Brookmyre is a former journalist and his books often betray a near-despair of the modern media and its increasing tendency to report itself rather than the news, describing the coverage of the death of Princess Diana as “two weeks where all sanity was suspended”. Hence his characters’ frequent musings on modern life via flashbacks or inner monologues.

Similar to Ben Elton, the narrative is often aggressive stand-up with riffs on oil money, rock music and room service, but the diversions are so funny that they never get in the way of the narrative. As an example, this book opens with this magnificent rant on road rage:
There was one up his arse right then, flashing the headlights on his MX3, the bloke’s eyes widening and nostrils flaring in time with the admonitory illuminations. An absolute fanny. Risking his life in an attempt to overtake before the crawler lane ends, so that he'll be one car - one car - up the queue when he reaches the traffic lights. And what does that tell you about the life he was risking? Exactly. 
Suburban Sad Cunts. This was the real reason for road rage. It wasn't a symptom of growing traffic congestion (though it shared the single car-usage factor), it was that this was the closest they got to defiance, the last ghostly remnant of the will to assert some identity. It was the only time they got to express any sense of self: when they were behind that wheel, on their own, jostling for position with the rest of the faceless. Overtake the guy in the bigger, newer, shinier car and it made you forget all the other ways in which he was leaving you behind to eat his dust.
His observations on Aberdeen are also first class, though it is doubtful whether the local tourist board will be quoting them any time in the near future:
The self-conferred nickname “Silver City” was another over-reaching feat of turd-polishing euphemism. It was grey. Everything was grey. There was just no getting away from it. The buildings were all – all – made of granite and the sky was covered in a thick layer of permacloud. It. Was. Grey. If Aberdeen was silver, then shite wasn’t brown, it was coppertone. It was grey, as in dull, as in dreary, as in chromatically challenged. It was grey, grey, grey. And the only thing greyer than the city itself was the fucking natives.
There is also much fun to be had in picking up his Tarantino-esque references, firmly based in his student experiences in the 80s, particularly football (“fitba”), music and gaming. Brookmyre himself is a St. Mirren supporter and his devotion to Paisley's football club is matched only by the contempt he heaps upon fans of Glasgow's Old Firm and their sectarian baggage inherited from centuries of Irish conflict.

When Simon Darcourt puts a plan together, he gives code names to all his accomplices, always using the names of rock stars. In his concluding mission, he splits the team into three units of four: the first is named after The Clash; the second after the original members of the Sex Pistols; and then to ratchet up the humour a further notch, the last group is named after the four members of Queen.

The characters from his time at university are instantly recognisable, as is the banter between Lexy and Wee Murph, two pupils from Raymond’s school who accidentally get caught up in the scheme. Brookmyre’s ear for everyday conversation is highlighted by the titles for his books, which are almost always common phrases that apply perfectly to the stories. My personal favourite is All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye, as spoken by many a harassed mother.

So, if you have yet to discover Christopher Brookmyre’s intelligent and hilarious world of hapless gangsters, vile politicians, reluctant action heroes, grudge-bearing hacks, rock-star terrorists and enraged mums with guns, then do yourself a massive favour and get stuck in.

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