Want You Gone
Little, Brown £18.99
ONE of the defining characteristics of Chris Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane novels is the development of his protagonist. While other crime luminaries rest comfortably in stasis, Parlabane, like a great white shark, keeps moving. This makes him one of the more fascinating characters in crime fiction, stumbling into one bad situation after another, but finding a way through thanks to his own particular sense of morality.
In this tale, Parlabane is called on to repay a favour and is plunged into the cyber world of hackers. He is in London to attend an interview with Broadwave, an achingly hip online news outlet. His disreputable past is proving a sticking point but the young editor is a fan and Parlabane soon finds himself in gainful employment. He is living in the flat of a friend who is abroad and his life is settling down. When the Royal Scottish Great Northern bank is hacked, Parlabane decides to get in touch with ace hacker, Buzzkill, who has both helped and hindered him in the past. He is hoping Buzzkill will give him inside information, so that he can start his Broadwave career with an exclusive story.
Meanwhile, Sam Morpeth is living in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Her mother is in prison, and Sam has to look after her younger sister, Lilly, who has Down’s syndrome. Giving up her dream of going to university, Sam leaves school and takes a job in a sandwich shop. In order to work full-time, she tries to access benefits to pay for an after-school club for Lilly. However, she must already be working full-time in order to qualify, the benefits officer with a face “like a recently slammed door” tells her. Brookmyre is no stranger to including social comment in his novels and here he takes aim at the benefits system. He piles misery upon misery on 19-year-old Sam, pushing her to the extreme. Sam’s online life keeps her sane but when a stranger calling himself Zodiac, threatens to expose every facet of her life, she is blackmailed into committing crime. Turning to Parlabane for help, she in turn threatens to expose his more illegal actions to ensure his cooperation. Together they devise the crime, all the while looking for a way to outwit Zodiac. Sam has to think of Lilly’s welfare while Parlabane is trying to keep his new job.
Brookmyre’s black humour is evident throughout the novel. Parlabane comes across a receptionist, “wearing roughly as much foundation as Joan of Arc would need for an open-casket funeral”. When he attends a Broadwave party, “everything is so on-trend that the leftovers are likely binned in a few hours for being out of fashion”.
The online duel between Sam and Zodiac could make for very dull reading. However, Brookmyre injects plenty of jeopardy to ratchet up the tension. Sam explains her plan to Parlabane who knows a little about computers but is lost when she starts planting Trojan Horses and finding back doors. He is more at home when he has to charm vital information from unwitting employees. Although a lot of the action takes place in cyber space, it doesn’t stop Parlabane from breaking and entering premises and almost freezing to death while stealing a prototype from a sub-zero lab. Much of the time he and Sam seem to be one step ahead of the police but one step behind the mysterious Zodiac.
This is an older, somewhat wiser Parlabane, who is trying to get his life on an even keel. He develops an unexpectedly paternal relationship with Sam, which means he takes the kind of risks he had promised himself were in the past. It is curious to see him in this role. Disarmed by Sam’s courage and determination to look after Lilly, he seems bewildered by his feelings.
Brookmyre’s plot is full of surprising twists and turns that make it pleasingly difficult to guess the ending, while Parlabane’s evolution forms the emotional heart of the novel. It is an engrossing read, combining appealing characters with a contemporary scenario drawn from the murkier corners of modern life.
280pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
Mothers and daughters have long provided inspiration for writers. Their complex, multifaceted relationships are like no others. Lilias, a jobbing actress, is the Lady Macbeth of the title in Ajay Close’s fifth novel. Now in her later years, Lilias was a reluctant mother to Freya, who spent her childhood being dumped on friends while Lilias was working, or helping out the landladies in countless theatrical digs. Freya has never known who her father is as Lilias refuses point blank to reveal his identity. It is hard not to be amused by Lilias even as she displays her innate selfishness. She is a narcissist and has a casual relationship with the truth, especially when it comes to her career. The world revolves around Lilias, or it should, and Freya is a bit-player in her mother’s life.
Now in her early forties, Freya and her husband, Frankie, are trying to have a baby and are going down the IVF route. It is costly but Frankie is a television sports reporter and Freya is a senior civil servant working for the Scottish government so they have the funds. They sign up with a private clinic out in the glorious Perthshire countryside and Freya is told she must live locally in order to visit the clinic daily. This, she is told, is the secret of their success. Freya sees the photos of dozens of cherubic babies pinned to the walls of the clinic and grudgingly agrees. There is a business-like brutality to the clinic. Vast sums of money are demanded and couples are put on a production line, desperately hoping there is a baby when they reach the end of it.
Freya is a fascinating character, seemingly well-adjusted in spite of her peripatetic childhood and hoping to give a child a very different upbringing to her own. She is often the adult in her exchanges with her mother but Lilias can still cut her to the quick with the sharp side of her tongue. Working to create a family gives Freya the impetus to find out more about her own. She decides to look for her father which enrages her mother but Lilias has one more great dramatic role to perform. The past echoes in the present as Freya, unwittingly, seems to be reliving her mother’s life during Lilias’s pregnancy, which is told in vivid flashbacks.
Frankie has adored Freya since they were children but the IVF process takes its toll on their marriage. Freya displays some ambivalence about their relationship and her impulsive actions put it at risk. Frankie is also having a mid-life crisis as a younger colleague at work threatens his position, which only adds to the strain on their marriage.
Close is exploring important matters; nature and artifice, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, loyalty and betrayal. Her prose, as usual, is beautifully polished but this is her most emotional novel to date and is partly inspired by her own experiences. As a picture of a marriage crumbling under pressure it is melancholy and all too genuine. However, it is the rounded and byzantine relationship between Freya and Lilias that lingers long in the mind.