Interview: David Horscroft on bisexuality, psychopaths and violence

My bookclub recently read Fletcher by David Horscroft, one of the latest sff novels published in South Africa, from Fox & Raven Publishing. Set in a postapocalyptic dystopian world, it’s written from the perspective of K Fletcher, a murderous psychopath who investigates a murder-suicide and gleefully commits a lot more murder along the way.

I’ll admit that Fletcher proved to be a bit too much for me, but it did start an interesting discussion about unlikeable characters and psychopaths. I started chatting to David about it, and he kindly agreed to let me pick his brain on the subject.

avatarWelcome to Violin in a Void David! To get started tell us a bit about your novel and the world it’s set in.

It’s the almost-apocalypse. In 2012, poor containment procedures resulted in a haemorragic outbreak of global proportions. Two years later, and the world is only just starting to steady itself. Entire countries have been wiped out, Europe has descended into civil chaos, America has been crippled and Russia has somehow ended up as the most stable surviving country. Southern Africa is a desolate bloodbath, with the northern territories still being scourged by viral resurgences, civil struggles and opportunistic looters from what used to be the first world. Israel has completely annexed the Sinai Peninsula, and no one has heard a thing from China in almost sixteen months. Across the world, cities burned and rioted, and the ones that survived have only done so by cordoning off vast swathes of land into anarchic gutterages.

This novel has very little to do with these troublesome two years. Enter K Fletcher, stage left.

Fletcher is several things: problem drinker, slutty dancer, private investigator, corporate saboteur and discrete problem fixer. Fletcher also happens to be one of the most prolific murderers the world has ever seen.

K doesn’t deal with morals, but rather with puzzles: anything to stave off the boredom between each bloody, thrashing kill. One such puzzle involves a murder-suicide: man-kills-wife, man-kills-self, cue tears. But Fletcher is not convinced that it’s that simple, and ends up finding connections between the husband and a far more dangerous entity: the standard Evil Dystopian Corporation in the form of the munitions company RailTech. The book follows Fletcher’s investigation as they shake down, slice up and choke out any unfortunates in the way.


Photograph by Ruth Smith (@photo_bunny24)


Readers may not notice this (I didn’t!), but K Fletcher’s gender is never revealed. Why did you choose to write the character this way?

It was actually my goal from the start, simply for its own sake: I wanted to see if it was possible to write something of a decent length wherein the gender of the main character was ambiguous to the reader. It’s tricky: the level of violence K exhibits is stereotypically seen with male offenders, so it was a lot of fun to see how I could bring out the feminine side too. Fletcher is also the perfect character for this: a naturally volatile, aggressive personality is really fun to write when you’re completely unbound by societal expectations of something as often-silly as the gender of your character.

It’s also interesting that Fletcher is bisexual. On a practical level, bisexuality is another way of obscuring gender, but it also had me thinking that you don’t often see gay or bisexual characters who are really badass or openly psychopathic. Any thoughts?

I’d tend to disagree that you don’t often see bisexual characters which are psychopathic, but I’ll get to that in a tick. Bisexual and gay characters are starting to make appearances in mainstream media: several playable and non-playable characters in the Borderlands series, Admiral Jack Hardness (Dr. Who?, Torchwood), Omar Little (The Wire) and Frank Underwood (House of Cards). The main villain in Skyfall, Raoul Silva, was casually bisexual; in fact, there was a brief implication that 007 himself had gone through an experimental phase at the very least.

It’s starting to creep in, with the classic resistance (especially, as you’ve spoken before, in the SFF sphere). But there’s a common thread that I can’t be the only one to note. Bear with me for a second, and consider the following list:

Everyone mentioned above (minus Omar Little)
Dr. Frank ‘n Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
Oberyn Martell and Cersei Lannister (Game of Chairs)
Lisbeth Salander (Millenium trilogy)
Chloe (The B**** In Apartment 23)
Dorian Gray
Anyone in The Vampire Chronicles
Pretty much any evil protagonist written by the Marquis de Sade

All these characters have two things in common: they’re all degrees of bisexual, and they’re all sociopaths. Some are murderous, others are simply violent, and some are just largely harmless troublemakers, but they all share those two traits.

Why? Is this the bisexual version of the gay-lisp: an unfair stereotype that we’re all shifty, amoral psychopaths? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s the other way around: psychopaths strike me as far more likely to be bisexual. It makes sense for sociopathic characters to be bisexual: someone so inured to social convention and so aware of the power of seduction would be extremely likely to be bisexual, even if only for utilitarian means. As M.E. Thomas, the author of Confessions of a Sociopath puts it, it’s not so much bisexuality as it is gender indifference. The sociopath doesn’t see gender; rather, they see someone to manipulate and prey on.

This preconception extends way back into history. Lilith (of the Bible, not of Borderlands) is bisexual, having sex with both Adam and Eve. Loki chooses partners of both sexes. There’s apparently even an Aztec god called Huehuecoytl (thanks, TV Tropes) who is a gender-changing bisexual with a penchant for causing trouble just out of pettiness or boredom. Sound familiar?

Maybe that’s even why bisexuals get such flack from both the exclusively straight and gay communities: maybe humans instinctively distrust bisexuals since we instinctively see it as a “Sociopath Here” flag. It’s clearly pretty ingrained into our collective psyche.

If that warning triggered while you were around someone like K Fletcher, it might just save your life.

Fletcher is a very violent, unlikeable character, at least in the sense that their actions are typically questionable (e.g. frequent drug abuse), if not outright abhorrent (e.g. murdering a child on a whim or holding a woman prisoner for amusement). What was your approach in writing a character like this?

The book is written from Fletcher’s perspective, and I always made sure to write in as authentic a Fletcher-voice as possible. It was more important to me to have an authentic character than a likeable one, and I think Fletcher makes as much sense as this kind of character can, despite the madness and impulsivity.

What this means is that Fletcher is wholly unapologetic. The character wouldn’t care what you thought about them. In fact, the same personality type would probably go out of its way to shock and horrify those around them. That’s why Fletcher is perpetually spouting off violent thoughts and saying things like “Hey, remember that time I killed everyone in that orphanage, that was heeee-larious.” It’s almost a little cartoonishly evil at times, but I can imagine Fletcher giggling and getting off on people getting uncomfortable about that.

Once I got used to pulling no punches, it became very easy to write in Fletcher’s voice. I started writing this book for myself long before I even considered taking it to a publisher, so once the blend of flippant atrocity took form it was something I could easily step in and out of. I can be a bit of a sick twist myself, at times, so I’m sure that helped… a lot.

Unlikeable characters have stories to tell. They might not be well received, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them, and it definitely wouldn’t stop a character like K from doing so.

Doesn’t this mean that Fletcher actually does care what people think, albeit in a twisted way? They don’t care about being hated, certainly, but evoking fear, shock and horror is essential because that’s what Fletcher thrives on. They’re not totally indifferent.

I think there’s a difference between caring what people think, and how people react. I wouldn’t expect Fletcher to care what people thought about them in the long run, but when they’re interacting with the character it’s almost like a form of mental torture. Fear, shock, horror, revulsion: these are all instinctive reactions. Even lust is an instinctive one (considering Fletcher’s thing with occasional seduction).

If someone jumps out from behind a curtain with a knife, you don’t think: “Wow, this person seems pretty unpleasant. I can’t say I’m very fond of who they are and what they’re trying to do.” You don’t think at all. Your brain kicks into instinct mode and overrides any thinking.

Fletcher does this on a literal level when engaging in violence, and on a lesser level when engaging with people. Saying horrifying things is, to them, the social equivalent of jumping out swinging a meat cleaver, with the same fruits in the form of the instinctive skin-crawlage and discomfort.

So no, I don’t think this means that Fletcher cares what people think, when you consider that thinking is a very intellectual approach to a force of nature like K. Invoking fear and repulsion is simply the social equivalent of feeling someone struggle and thrash as you beat them to death with a claw hammer.

One of the things I found interesting but difficult to handle is the fact that there are no good guys, or at least no group or person who “should” come out on top. K goes up against an evil corporation called RailTech that murders its own employees and tests weapons on poor African villages. K, however, is just as evil on an individual level. Was this a consequence of the broken world in which the novel is set? Or did you have some other purpose?

A core motif in Fletcher is this concept of the “grinning flesh”, which K uses to refer to humanity in general. In their opinion, the almost-apocalypse didn’t change humanity; rather, it just took off humanity’s collective mask of sanity. It shows: the vaulting depravity of the Midnight Hour and the unfettered expansion of brutal mega-corporations such as RailTech show us that the good people are going crazy, and the bad people are profiting. Fletcher is both bad and crazy: this new world makes a lot of sense.

It’s the authenticity angle, all over again. Good people simply don’t stand a chance against Fletcher, unless they sacrifice a bit of themselves to stack the odds a little, like Vincent. You’re stuck with the only contenders being the ones who are willing to get their hands dirty, which can leave readers feeling either torn between wanting K to win or die, or indifferent as to what happens at all.

I’m OK with that, I guess. It’s still a bit weird to me that Fletcher got published at all. In the same way that unlikeable characters have stories to tell, those stories may often contain plethoras of other unlikable characters. At least there’s a conflict: for example, I think “Everyone is Shitty” is a more engaging stance than “Everyone is Hugs”.

I sometimes found the violence of the book alienating; K kills frequently, cruelly, and indiscriminately. Some random stranger could easily get their throat torn out just because Fletcher is bored or annoyed. However, I appreciated the fact that the violence was never sexual. Did you have any particular reasons for avoiding this sort of violence?

The violence is meant to be jarring. It’s meant to be there as a wake-up call to anyone who is cheering for Fletcher: “I am not a nice person.” But there’s no reason to avoid it, since violence is such an important part of K’s existence. Murder makes Fletcher feel alive and powerful like nothing else.

Sexual violence, then, doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying Fletcher would have anything against rape; rather, the character simply has no interest in it. As they say themselves: “cheating is pointless if the game is the goal”; Fletcher kinda gets a kick out of being sultry and seducing people. It’s a power trip: “I’m going to seduce you into taking your clothes off for someone who has killed more people than you’ve left-swiped on Tinder.” Violence doesn’t help that goal, and inherently destroys any mental manipulation. Similarly, if Fletcher wants to murder someone, rape would be unnecessary as it wouldn’t be a direct contribution to the finality of their death.

Don’t mistake the lack of sexual violence to be an indicator of some moral compass. Fletcher has simply realized that fucking and filleting are two incompatible forms of entertainment.

I’ve asked quite a few questions about what a terrible person your main character is, so tell me, what do you like about K Fletcher?

I like several things about Fletcher, which worries my team of psychologists greatly. It makes sense, though: sociopaths often have some traits we admire, and a narrator like Fletcher would exacerbate those traits in themselves. Why do you think Bumblefrond Cucumberpatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes has won him such acclaim? People want to be Sherlock. People want to be the cold, calculating sociopath who can stare down death, crack wise and solve the mystery before tea.

In that regard, I like Fletcher’s honesty (with themselves and the world). I like their curiousity and glibness. I definitely admire the character’s resourcefulness, and can relate to that boredom they constantly feel. The snark was fun to write, too.

I like the fact that K kept Valerie and Vincent around, because I really enjoyed writing about the dynamic between those three.

I’m probably a bad person to ask that question of: considering I did as much as possible to really adopt Fletcher’s voice while writing, a little part of me wants to shout “Fletcher’s great! I especially love the face-puppet part. With the actual faces and the actual puppets.”

It’s probably wise for people not to have dinner alone with me.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?

Nothing tangible in the writing sphere: a few potential Fletcher stories and a nice zombie premise.

I’m mainly bundled up in my programming at the moment: playing around with fun cryptography systems for high-risk websites.

Thanks for your time David!


David is a South African programmer with a wide range of fascinations, including biology, medicine, psychology and technology. He spends most of his time obsessing over pet projects and is a sucker for bad puns, good vodka and interesting people.

You can find David on Twitter @forealiously.

Up for Review: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

The Execution of Noa P SingletonThe Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver (Crown Publishing)

NetGalley Blurb:

A beguiling debut novel about the stories we tell ourselves to survive, the scars that never fade and the things we choose to call the truth.

Noa P. Singleton speaks not a word in her own defense throughout a brief trial that ends with a jury finding her guilty of first-degree murder. Ten years later, a woman who will never know middle age, she sits on death row in a maximum security penitentiary, just six months away from her execution date.
Seemingly out of the blue, she is visited by Marlene Dixon, a high-powered Philadelphia attorney who is also the heartbroken mother of the woman Noa was imprisoned for killing. She tells Noa that she has changed her mind about the death penalty and Noa’s sentence, and will do everything in her considerable power to convince the governor to commute the sentence to life in prison – if Noa will finally reveal what led her to commit her crime.
Noa and Marlene become inextricably linked through the law, shared sentiments of guilt, and irreversible mistakes in an unapologetic tale of love, anguish, and deception that is as unpredictable as it is magnificently original.
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is Silver’s debut novel and will be published on 11 June 2013 by Crown Publishing.
Crown Publishing
The novel at Random House (including an excerpt)
About the Author
Elizabeth L. Silver holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and a JD from Temple University Beasley School of Law. She has taught ESL in Costa Rica, worked in book publishing in New York, and was an adjunct professor of English composition and literature at Drexel University and St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She has also worked as a Briefing and Research Attorney for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, and is licensed to practice law in the state of California. – author’s website

Up for Review: Murder as a Fine Art

David Morrell, the creator of Rambo, has published 29 novels, 6 works of non-fiction, and numerous short-stories and essays. His latest novel is a historical murder mystery featuring  real-life author Thomas de Quincey. I’ve never paid any attention to Rambo, but this sounds quite good.

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellMurder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (Mulholland Books)

NetGalley blurb:


Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.

The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.

In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer, whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.


Murder as a Fine Art was published on 7 May 2013 by Mulholland Books.

Mulholland Books
Conversation with Morrell and De Quincey scholar Robert Morrisson
Pretty much everything else is covered by the novel’s page on Morrell’s website. Click through for links to the book trailer, interviews with Morrell about the novel, and buying options.

About the Author
David Morrell is the critically acclaimed author of First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph. D. in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy The Brotherhood of the Rose (the basis for the only television mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl), The Fraternity of the Stone, and The League of Night and Fog. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is the recipient of three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association as well as the prestigious lifetime Thriller Master Award from the International Thriller Writers’ organization. His writing book, The Successful Novelist, discusses what he has learned in his four decades as an author. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Review of Stolen Lives by Jassy Mackenzie

Stolen Lives by Jassy MackenzieTitle: Stolen Lives
Series: Jade de Jong #2
Jassy Mackenzie
crime thriller
own copy
Rating: 6/10

I hadn’t planned to review this novel, and had’t heard of it until I stumbled across a second-hand copy during my recent holiday in Cape Town. I’d been taking the opportunity to build my collection of SA genre fiction, so I was quick to grab this crime thriller. Jassy Mackenzie is one of the better-known names in SA fiction and is currently in the spotlight with her latest release, Folly, about a woman who falls on hard times and sets up a domination dungeon in her garden, offering her services as a dominatrix to make some much-needed cash. Stolen Lives, published in 2010, also has a sexual theme, but it tackles sex crime and is (presumably) much darker and more violent. It’s the second in a series featuring PI Jade de Jong. I haven’t read the first book, Random Violence, but I thought this one stood perfectly well on its own.

If you spot it online or in store, I suggest you avoid reading the blurb unless you don’t mind learning about two thirds of the major plot developments. I’ve written a plot summary that’s less exciting, but less revealing. The story opens in the London, where Detective Constable Edmonds, newly promoted to the Human Trafficking Division of Scotland Yard, goes on her first raid at a brothel that’s been using trafficked women. They fail to capture the owner or the mysterious woman who injures two cops and escapes with an accomplice, but they at least manage to rescue the girls, most of whom have been trafficked from South Africa.

In Jo’burg, the very wealthy and impeccably groomed Pamela Jordaan hires Jade de Jong to be her personal bodyguard. Pamela’s husband Terence recently went missing, and because he owns a stripclub – the kind of business that attracts dangerous people – Pamela fears for her own safety. Jade thinks she’ll just be babysitting some paranoid housewife, until she and Pamela are nearly shot in broad daylight, and Pamela’s daughter Tamsin goes missing as well. Further investigation draws Jade into the sordid world of sex work and human trafficking, and instead of simply watching Pamela shop, she finds herself dealing with cases of torture, murder and rape that are all linked to the trafficking case in London.

At least Jade has the help of police Superintendent David Patel, her ex-lover who recently ended their brief relationship on a cold and awkward note after a moral disagreement. David is dedicated and ambitious, but horribly overworked. He still cares about Jade though, so he does his best to help her, especially when her case begins to involve serious criminal activity and intersects with his own investigations. Although neither of them harbour any illusions about the dangers of the situation they’re involved in, they still find themselves unprepared for the extent of the violence and brutality that follows.

Not surprisingly, Stolen Lives offers bleak picture of crime in South Africa, and Jo’burg in particular. I learned quite a bit about the human trafficking in my home country, assuming Mackenzie’s novel is as accurate as it seems. Apparently it’s the third most lucrative crime in the world, after drug trafficking and arms dealing. South Africa is, depressingly, both the source and destination of trafficked women, and the laws related to these crimes are so inadequate that they tend to work against the victims rather helping them. Any such case is a “right bloody pain in the arse” for the cops, and the USA has actually put SA on a watch list for “an inability to exhibit efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” (36)

I don’t know SA was a human trafficking hub, but the inefficiency of governmental and legal systems wouldn’t be a surprise to any citizen, and the novel makes this an integral part of the plot. Home Affairs is portrayed as an inefficient institution, rotten and reeking with corruption. Officials take a year or more to process passports and ID books, or expect bribes before they will do anything. On the other hand, passports can easily be bought as long as you have the money and the right contacts. One of the villains goes to violent lengths to procure a set of forged passports, and other countries are said to complain about the number of fake passports from South Africa (leading, for example, to South Africans requiring a visa to enter the UK). One character describes the country as “beautiful but lawless”, which is a tad melodramatic, but I understand where that feeling comes from.

Still, Stolen Lives is hardly the bleakest novel I’ve read about SA. It’s subject matter is disturbing, but it’s not written from the perspective of those who suffer the most – the trafficked women or the women who move to Jo’burg from small towns, desperate for jobs promised by the allure of the big city but finding themselves resorting to sex work. We see things either from the POV of law enforcement agents (Jade, David and Edmonds), or the criminals they’re trying to stop. This is still a crime novel intended to entertain, so the victims are seen only through the eyes of cops or criminals, their voices heard in interviews or pleas. Pamela could be considered a victim of sorts, but she is so snotty and spoilt that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her, especially since her family’s troubles are a consequence of their sordid business dealings.

That said, this isn’t what I’d call an easy read. It may take a more privileged perspective on sex trafficking, but this is not a book for sensitive readers. It includes torture, rape, and a great deal of other violence. Not all of it happens on the page, but a young woman describing how she was kidnapped, locked up and repeatedly raped is horrifying enough.

On a gentler note, are the personal lives of Jade and David. They broke up because of Jade’s attitude to killing – she shot the man who murdered her father, and feels no remorse. In fact, she believes certain people deserve to be killed – a moral issue the novel raises a few times. David, however, disagrees so strongly with this that he left. They still care about each other, but David has another complication – his wife Naisha and young son Kevin. The couple separated after Naisha had an affair, but again, David still loves her and is doing his utmost to maintain a strong relationship with Kevin despite his demanding job. Over in the UK, Edmonds’s story is more focused on the case itself, but we still get an understanding of her as an awkward woman, trying hard to overcome her insecurities in order to do good work. The novel also gives a glimpse into the culture of Jo’burg, which is much more… intense than the laid-back attitude of Capetonians. There was a bit of comic relief in Jade’s description of the way Pamela “screamed Sandton, from her big, gold-framed sunglasses and the silver Patek Philippe watch on her left wrist to the oversized diamond rings that sparkled on her red-manicured fingers”. Sandton is an affluent suburb in Jo’burg, and although I’ve never spent much time there, I know exactly the kind of person Jade is talking about.

There is, you may have noticed, quite a lot going on here. Too much perhaps. There are four main crimes – Terence’s disappearance, Tamsin’s disappearance, the human trafficking in the UK, and a kidnapping that I omitted from my plot summary – as well as several minor ones. As a reader, you can assume from the start that they’re linked, and certain sections show exactly how they’re linked, although they don’t reveal all. Jade and David, however, aren’t able to figure this out until the last quarter of the novel, when it comes as absolutely no surprise to you. By then, you’re just waiting for them to fill in the blanks. There are also many different viewpoints – the narrative switches frequently between the main characters (Jade, David, Edmonds) as well as minor characters whose brief appearances show us parts of the plot that the protagonists aren’t privy to. Towards the end, there are even sections from the villains’ POVs.  And with the multiple viewpoints come multiple story arcs. It’s not hard to keep track of everyone, but it does make the novel feel very untidy, with stories and characters scattered all over the place. Mackenzie brings everything together, of course, but it’s not all that satisfying. Perhaps one of the reasons is that it’s not the kind of crime thriller that engages you in the mystery by giving you the means to figure things out on your own. Either you know more than the protagonists, or you have to wait for someone to you exactly what happened.

It’s still a good read – it has the action, violence and shock value that you expect from a crime thriller – it’s just not as tightly plotted as I would have liked, and there were some details that didn’t make sense or were left dangling. I also thought it very stupid that Jade goes alone to face the villain in the final confrontation, with David not even considering the possibility that this might be extremely fucking dangerous and suggesting she wait for help. Instead, he just gives a lift home so she can get her car and drive off to her possible death.

One other concern I want to mention is the way that non-white characters are usually described according to their race. If, for example, a woman is described only as being tall with brown hair, you can assume she’s white. Because if she’s black, coloured or Indian, that will be part of her description. Mackenzie is hardly the only author to do this and she doesn’t always do it, but it’s so noticeable because this is a crime thriller about detectives, and providing physical descriptions of characters is a standard means of evoking an investigative tone. One character who is frequently described as the “black accomplice” when other, more important descriptions could be easily be used. It wouldn’t be a problem if the white characters were similarly described. It’s also not necessary, and not all authors do it, opting for more subtle means of describing their characters unless the issue of race is pertinent. Is the word “black” meant to evoke a sense of menace in accordance with stereotypes? Or does this trend, here and elsewhere simply acknowledge the way many readers see white as the norm and wouldn’t imagine a character to have a different skin colour unless it was specified? But that’s another debate.

All in all, Stolen Lives is a decent crime thriller, given weight by the very serious issue at its core. Crime has become a major theme in South African fiction, a dire but welcome change from the (post) Apartheid politics that dominated our novels for so long. Stolen Lives highlights a major issue in the SA crime scene and asks difficult questions. Although I had some issues with the book, I liked the moral ambiguities – the way villains can become victims and vice versa, the way characters sometimes do unpleasant or cruel things to achieve more admirable ends. I’d grit my teeth before venturing into another of Mackenzie’s novels, but don’t take that as a reason to shy away from her. Her works are available locally and abroad, so check them out 🙂

January 2013 Round-Up

I can’t believe January’s already over. At first it seemed to crawl and every time I looked at the calendar I felt liked I had loads of time to finish the reading I’d scheduled for this month. And then suddenly it was 1 February and I’d only read 5 books.

Revenge by Yoko IgawaLuckily I started off with an excellent read – Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. It’s a novel made up of interlinked short stories that are deceptively calm and hypnotic with scatterings of shock horror. The writing is exquisite; Ogawa is exceptionally talented when it comes to the finer details of fiction. I’m also giving away two copies of Revenge, so if you haven’t entered, go and do so now!

January 2013

Next up was A Killer in the Wind by Andrew Klavan, a somewhat self-reflective hardboiled crime novel. The protagonist, Dan Champion, is trying hard to live up to his name and come to terms with the times he failed to do so. A decent story with plenty of action is unfortunately spoiled by utterly dismal female characters – lacklustre, weak and whiny. Can a man only be a hero when the women around him are damsels in distress? Perhaps Klavan is being satirical, but either way I wasn’t impressed.

The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher is a fantasy-horror-western about a primordial monster  slumbering within an abandoned silver mine out in the Nevada desert in the 1800s. Of course, something begins to wake the monster, and it’s up to the citizens of the town of Golgotha to save themselves, not to mention the entire universe. An average read, but with a few issues I want to discuss. Review to follow this week.

I’m still processing my thoughts on The Best of All Possible Worlds  by Karen Lord. On the one hand, it’s an elegant, skillfully written piece of literary science fiction with exceptionally well-rounded characters. On the other hand, it’s very much a love story, and although the love story takes a long time to develop, it dominates the ending with what I find to be far too much cheesiness. So while the novel is undoubtedly far above average, I have my reservations.

Expecting Someone Taller by Tom HoltMy leisure read for January was Expecting Someone Taller, Tom Holt’s debut novel. I’ve read several of his comic fantasies (and one or two sf ones), and although they’re enjoyable I find that they can get a tad chaotic with their very large casts of characters. Expecting Someone Taller, which draws on Norse mythology, had a lot of people to keep track of, but in general it was simpler. Perhaps my favourite of his novels that I’ve read so far.

I’ve embarked on the very daunting task of reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, but although I started on 15 January, I’ve only made it through about 20% of the novel. If you’ve seen a copy of the book though, you’ll know that 20% of it is already the length of your average novel. to add to that, it’s a pretty dense read with loads of rather technical infodumps. But Stephenson can write infodumps like no one else, and I’m really enjoying the book so far. I just hope I can find time to finish it within the next month!

Review of A Killer in the Wind by Andrew Klavan

A Killer in the Wind by Andrew KlavanTitle: A Killer in the Wind
Author: Andrew Klavan
8 January 2013
Pubisher: Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic
crime and mystery
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Please note: This review contains mild spoilers. I have avoided revealing details about the plot, but I have written relatively detailed discussions of the major characters.

Dan Champion is a small-town cop who, when we first see him, is living up to his name in true hardboiled detective style. But Champion’s bold facade hides a troubled past – three years ago he worked undercover in New York, investigating a child sex slavery ring run by monstrous criminal known as the Fat Woman. Obsessed with finding her and tormented by the horrors of his work Champion started taking drugs to cope, resulting in some haunting hallucinations – a dead child who stares sadly at him, and a beautiful woman named Samantha, with whom Champion falls in love even though she doesn’t exist. Drug-crazed, Champion eventually botches the case, loses his chance of finding the Fat Woman, and gets sent off to the small town of Gilead for his sins.

But of course, his past comes back to destroy him. A woman washes up on the shores of the Hudson river, and when Champion arrives on the scene he’s shocked to see that it’s Samantha, the woman he hallucinated and fell in love with. “They’re coming after us”, she whispers to him, before passing out. Shortly after, Champion is attacked by the Starks, a terrifying pair of twin killers. He kills one, only to have his brother swear torturous revenge. The Starks had ransacked Champion’s house, but he has no idea what they could have been looking for or how Samantha is involved. The Fat Woman is hunting him down, and although this gives him another opportunity to catch her, he’s also forced to face the devastating secrets of his past and the ghosts that have been haunting him.

A Killer in the Wind hooked me with the first chapter. I really liked the writing – brash and hardboiled, sardonically relating tragedy and violence. It’s sort of serious without being entirely serious, and I thought it promised an entertaining read. We immediately get a heroic portrait of Champion, but then this is soon undermined by flashback chapters that tell his New York story. Suddenly, we see Champion miserable, stressed and discouraged. He might be doing good work, but he succumbs to drug addiction, and his one heroic moment is also one of his greatest failures. I liked this too; the contrast between current Champion and past Champion intrigued me, and I love a dark and dirty past.

I particularly liked the suggestion that Champion’s heroism is a facade: his name is so prosaic, that opening chapter was a little too cool, and the New York story shows us that he’s not quite the man he seems to be at first. I’m not trying to suggest that Champion doesn’t do brave and heroic things; he does. He’s a good person. But throughout the novel there’s a sense that he is who is because he’s trying to live up to his name, to fit himself into his idea of a hero. It’s a pretty traditional one – Champion seems to specialise in saving women and children, and he has a bit of trouble dealing with his emotions. His lover Bethany notes that he gets very angry when “someone hurts a child – or a woman, for that matter… or anyone who can’t defend themselves”. As we eventually find out, this entire story began with Champion trying to be a hero, the one who rescues a damsel in distress from the monsters who would hurt her. It’s not always easy: most of the time, Champion is able to be the hero he wants to be, but there are also many times when he fails – we see him terrified, vulnerable, and deranged, unable to defeat Stark or the Fat Woman.

So yeah, I like what Klavan did with Champion’s character, playing around with the concept of the hero, the champion. It’s not revolutionary – Champion is still the traditional hero at the end of the day – but it does add a little something extra to his character. However, despite the positive things I’ve said so far, you may recall that I only gave this book 5/10. Which means there are some major flaws I need to discuss. The biggest one is that in playing around with idea of the traditional, masculine hero, Klavan has produced some dreadfully traditional women to prop Champion up. They’re disempowered, clichéd, and boring.

The first is Bethany, Champion’s lover. She’s very beautiful and loves Champion, but he can’t love her back because he’s in love with the woman he once hallucinated. This doesn’t bother Bethany much. She’s available to tend to his wounds, give him the emotional insights he can’t figure out for himself, and be threatened by Stark so that Champion can swoop in to protect her.

Then there’s Samantha. It’s a long time before we really learn anything about her. In the first half of the novel, she’s imaginary, unconscious or missing. We know only that she’s very beautiful. Her most notable features are her auburn hair, and her very white skin. Champion knows her as an angel who comforted him in his time of need, but that might just be his fantasy. When we have proper encounters with Samantha later in the novel, she’s almost always a victim – a damsel in distress begging Champion to save her and put an end to these terrible things that are happening to them, or a neurotic mess for whom “being damaged is a full-time job”. Samantha shows some strength as an investigator and a survivor, but this is mostly in the backstory; the Samantha we see on the page is a quivering victim offering Champion a golden opportunity to be her hero. It’s so ridiculous that I wondered if Champion was hallucinating all his scenes with her, but if that were the case then most of the book could be a hallucination as well.

Finally, there’s the Fat Woman, who is both morally and physically monstrous. She’s hideously obese, and supposedly has no face. She kidnaps and sells children as sex slaves, so there’s really no room for ambiguity here – she’s evil. It’s pretty common for powerful women to be made monstrous in fiction, but Klavan deals her a double blow – he robs the Fat Woman of her power as a villain. However perverse her business operations, she must undoubtedly be a smart and purposeful person to run a crime ring. When we encounter her however, she’s nothing like the evil criminal mastermind I’d expected. She’s just a lumbering dope. Her role as Champion’s arch-nemesis had long ago been snapped up by Stark who is just one of her thugs. It’s so pathetic – the Fat Woman can’t even be a good villain; she needs a man to do it for her!

Stark at least makes a decent villain. He certainly has a terrifying appearance (you can identify the bad guys at a glance throughout this novel) – he’s so thin he looks like a skeleton, he keeps unnerving Champion with threats of endless torture, and he’s got a scary laugh. As a result, he does seem pretty creepy as he stalks Champion. The whole thing is a tad silly though. Champion killed Stark’s twin in a lucky act of self-defence; he didn’t hunt him down or something. Stark’s anger isn’t entirely justified; it’s more like the product of an insane mind. In fact, Stark doesn’t appear to be all that upset about his brother anyway. It’s more like he relishes the opportunity to go into psycho vengeance mode. Of course, this means that Stark passes up all opportunities to kill Champion with a simple bullet to the head. No, he has to let Champion live so he can make him suffer, giving our hero ample opportunity to save the day.

All the action that stems from this actually isn’t too bad, so I can’t fault the novel on that. I also love it when characters uncover dark secrets, and Champion has a few hiding away. But these things couldn’t save the novel for me. It started off well, but after Samantha was pulled out of the Hudson it went into a slow decline.

The blurb/marketing copy compares A Killer in the Wind to Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. The comparison is fair in that the protagonists are all intimately entwined with the mysteries they’re trying to solve and their jobs become deeply personal in disturbing ways. But I don’t think A Killer in the Wind holds a candle to Lehane and Flynn’s brilliant crime thrillers. I found both of those memorable novels deeply intriguing, shocking, and tense and Shutter Island is one of the best novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. A Killer in the Wind was never remotely as thrilling. Admittedly, the plot does deviate from crime thriller norms in some ways, but not enough. I think many readers could easily enjoy this, but it just didn’t work for me.

Review of The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton

The Constantine Affliction by T Aaron PaytonTitle: The Constatine Affliction
Author: T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt)
7 August 2012
Night Shade Books
science fiction, crime and mystery, steampunk, horror
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Victorian England is definitively conservative, with its emphasis on prim and proper behaviour, its sexual restrictions and strict gender boundaries. In The Constantine Affliction, T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt) disrupts these delicate sensibilities with the titular Affliction  – an STD that either kills its victims or causes them to change sex, leading to a slew of gender troubles. For men – considered to be the superior sex, of course – it’s a colossal embarrassment because it implies that they’ve been consorting with prostitutes and puts them at the social and existential disadvantage of being female. For women, becoming male offers all sorts of empowering opportunities, but the law quickly to nipped those in the bud by declaring that everyone be treated according to the gender of their birth. You can’t have girls becoming men and inheriting family fortunes, after all. But laws aren’t much help for those who wake up to find that their spouses have changed sex, or for poor Prince Albert who became a woman and was locked in the Tower of London for the treasonous crime of adultery.

Surprisingly, the Affliction hasn’t made Victorian society any more open-minded about gender; if anything, it’s made it worse. However, it has led to the invention and reluctant acceptance of clockwork prostitutes – mechanical women who are lifelike enough to satisfy men’s desires without the risk of infection.

London is still full of real prostitutes however, and the plot kicks off when master criminal Abel Value blackmails Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday into finding out why his whores are being murdered. Pimm enjoys a drunken, leisurely lifestyle financed by his family’s fortune, but he has a brilliant mind and every now and then he sobers up enough to help the police solve crimes.

To help Pimm in his investigation, Value puts him in touch with Adam, a brilliant but very weird and intimidating physician who performs autopsies and specialises in reanimating the dead. Pimm also encounters another curious and lively mind – Ellie Skyler, a young woman enjoying a blossoming career as an investigative journalist by using the gender-neutral byline E. Skye. Ellie is researching the clockwork prostitutes when she stumbles across some very dangerous information about Sir Bertram Oswald, the Queen’s consort. Everything is somehow connected – Abel Value, Oswald, the clockwork prostitutes, the murders, and the Affliction itself. Both Ellie and Pimm find that their paths lead to the grand schemes of a mad scientist and they end up themselves tangled in a bizarre plot that is a wonderful metafictional genre mash-up of science fiction, steampunk, mystery, horror and adventure that includes automatons, zombies, and grotesque monsters, and weird inventions.

It’s a crazy combination, and it’s not all that surprising that the novel started with Pratt joking “ that the perfect commercial novel would be steampunk with zombies”, although the zombies ended up playing a small role and there’s no steam, so Pratt has labelled this “gonzo-historical” fiction. It’s all bit kooky, but The Constantine Affliction is a fun, adventurous read that’s also quite smart.

It has plenty of wonderful gender-play, of course. Ellie plays at being a man everyday in order pursue her passion for journalism, and she goes a step further when she dresses up as a man to infiltrate a clockwork bordello. Getting the right paraphernalia is no problem – a family friend of hers has made a business out of helping men hide the fact that they’ve become women – but it’s a bit harder for Ellie to adjust to the social differences of being a man.

My absolute favourite character is Winifred, Pimm’s stunningly beautiful ‘wife’, who used to be ‘Freddy’, Pimm’s closest friend. Pimm married Freddy to save him/her from society and his family and s/he is one of the few Afflicted to change identities and being new lives. Like Ellie, Winifred defies all notions that women are the weaker sex, but she also puts paid to the belief that gender defines who you are as a person. Like Freddy, Winifred is a bold and hilariously outspoken social butterfly who enjoys shocking people, she still prefers to sleep with women, and she’s a brilliant inventor. She isn’t exactly thrilled about the change, but she’s adapted to it perfectly. She and Ellie are hardly stereotypically bland Victorian women.

Just before reading this novel, I had read two articles – one at Tor, and one at The Mary Sue – about why historical accuracy is not an acceptable excuse for sexism in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction. If we can create other worlds, the writers argued, there’s no good reason to make them misogynist ones. Why is it that writers imagine worlds with dragons and wizards more readily than worlds where men and women are equal? At the same time, writing historical fiction about sexist societies doesn’t mean you can lazily create flat female characters who are just as weak and uninfluential as people believed them to be. “History is not society”, writes Tansy Rayner Roberts at Tor, and your characters should be people, not stereotypes. Having read those articles, I was particularly delighted to come across Ellie and Winifred’s characters, both of whom have to deal with the social restrictions imposed on women, but who are by no means defined or subdued by those restrictions.

What I also liked about The Constantine Affliction was its metafictional touches. We’re told that the first case of the Affliction was a man named Orlando, a direct reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel about a character who changes sex halfway through the story. Pimm has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him. The best and most memorable reference however, is the character Adam, who turns out to be Frankenstein’s monster. Since the events of Mary Shelley’s novel, Adam has surpassed Victor Frankenstein’s abilities as a scientist, and he lives a strange but contented life in an underground lab, doing autopsies, bringing the dead back to life and running his own biological experiments. He is cold and methodical, but it’s easy to like him. He narrates in the first person (Ellie and Pimm are in third) and the reader is able to understand and care about him as a creature who was rejected by his creator, who distrusts humans because of their cruelty, but is still looking for someone to love and who can love him, no matter how grotesque he is. He ends up falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (I’m sorry, that’s a tiny bit of a spoiler, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it).

As much I loved pretty much everything I’ve written about this book so far, I do have reservations. The novel doesn’t really get into the average victim’s experience of the Affliction, and the social rather than legal attitude toward them. We’re forced to simply accept that the society hasn’t changed its beliefs about gender, without really understanding how or why. There is also a tendency to rely a little too much on long passages of exposition and the arch-villain is just far too crazy, taking the whole mad scientist act to extremes. In fact, I felt that the end of the novel got too ludicrous for my liking. It went from being fun to being silly and, finally, sentimental.

However, it could be said that this is just a natural outcome of the pulpy, outlandish stories Payton has poured into those melting pot of a novel. What else did should I have expected, having read about clockwork prostitutes, people changing sex, a drunken detective, a mad scientist with grand schemes to change the world, and an undead man falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (yay, I got to say it again!)?

But really, the problems I had with the novel are minor. It’s a great read, clever but light, with lots of adventure, likeable characters of all sorts and plenty of madcap dashes to save the day. Recommended.