Friday, August 21, 2009

Not The Same... and Decidedly Different

By Russel D McLean

Christopher Brookmyre’s latest novel is not a crime novel.

The Scots author has become known not just for his acerbic (and occasionally offensive, to those of a delicate nature) humour but for crafting the kind of crime novels “Agatha Christie might have written if she’d been off her tits on manky crack” – this according to Time Out.

However, Dame Agatha would not have touched this latest novel with a barge pole (mind you, given Brookmyre’s potty mouth, she may have had some difficulty with the rest of his output, too) and some people will be surprised to discover that Pandaemonium features a bunch of Glasgow School kids facing off against Demons from what is possibly the depths of hell. In amongst all this carnage of course, Brookmyre inserts an argument about organised religion and how it can all go so horribly, horribly wrong.

It’s a brilliant book. It moves like, well, a bat out of hell, and it’s screamingly funny and no one else could have written it bar Brookmyre.

But it’s also a risky book.

Because what he’s done is switch genre completely. I mean, there is no crime here. At the day job, we have to put it in the crime section, but I’d be much happier putting it in horror. Its not a predictable Brookmyre book. Oh, sure, its his book. It has his obsessions and his voice and his idiosyncracies, but its not the kind of book we’ve come to expect from him. He’s turned the tables on his readers, and he’s having a ball doing it.

A lot of writers these days are pigeonholed by genre considerations. People believe that they want “the same but different” and get nervous when a writer does something unexpected. Like we don’t trust our writers to be unpredictable, even though so many of them are at their best when they are.

In a recent interview with the Rap Sheet’s Ali Karim, John Connolly says the following:

my publishers have adopted a very hands-off approach to what I do, and I’ve been permitted to experiment through books like Nocturnes, The Book of Lost Things and, later this year, The Gates. That’s come at a cost, though, in that the sales of the Parker books would probably be higher if I was producing one of them every year instead of exploring other avenues with every second book. “The same, but slightly different” is the way to top the bestseller lists. So exploring different genres doesn’t help, but I’m comfortable with the balance that I’ve achieved.

The thing that his “experiments” are often among his best books (Although his most recent Charlie Parker, The Lovers, is an incredible and wonderful novel) and allow him to surprise his readers. Which is what all writers should aspire to, I think. And all readers should desire, as well.

A lot of people complain about how their once favourite writers are churning out the same stuff over and over. I think we, the readers, have to take the blame for this as much as anyone for not standing up and saying that although we love what we read before, we loved it because it was unexpected, because it was fresh and what we really want is the same experience – the feeling of not knowing how a novel is going to go, of being carried away by its vision – rather than the same damn book.

As audiences, we have started to believe that somehow if we are surprised or taken out of our comfort zone, this is a bad thing. But I would say that if we can just allow ourselves to open up to the possibility of being surprised, of accepting new and different things even from authors we think know, then perhaps we might just start to remember why we loved reading in the first place.


Jay Stringer said...

great review. I've not read Brookmyre in awhile, maybe it's time to go back.

Dana King said...

I read THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS only because I'd read everything else by Connolly and never been disappointed, and because he was so committed to it in his blog. I loved it. it's a beautifully written book and a pleasure to read. My favorite book of his is still THE BLACK ANGEL, (with THE UNQUIET) close behind, but I'd gladly read TBOLT again.

I know everyone loves THE LOVERS, but for some reason it didn;t resonate with me like his others. I'm willing to blame that on me.

Russel said...


I think Pandaemonium's worth a look, and admittedly he did have me in the palm of his hand right from when I read the concept.


I think THE LOVERS works for me because particularly because its a game changer. It shifts the nuance of the Parker series, although admittedly, that's not going to work with every reader. It would be a terrible world if we all thought and enjoyed exactly the same things. But I have always admired Connelly for playing around with what he does (Look at BAD MEN, essentially a straight horror novel compared to what he was doing at the time). And that's also why I would have had great respect for Brookmyre with this new one even if I hadn't really dug it.