Idealism is a powerful thing.
Though grim, inevitable reality might suggest that ideals will often die a quick and fiery death of the funeral pyre of exigency or the pragmatic demands of realpolitik, we cling to them anyway, convinced that this time, this time, things will be different.
This is what drives revolutions, environmental campaigns, true political and religious believers, and Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre’s whodunnit in space Places in the Darkness.
The book is a great deal more than this, of course, but at its heart, it carries Brookmyre’s gift for brilliantly-told crime stories – he is the man behind he highly-successful Jack Parlabane series – well and truly into space with results so satisfying you’ll wonder why the likes of Christie, Dalgleish, Morse and Holmes haven’t strapped a jetpack to their well-known livery and headed off into low-level orbit.
(Granted, they’re a little out of time for such a jaunt but when has that ever dented the literary imperative for going anywhere that imagination can take us?)
Thankfully, Alice Blake, prodigious investigator and new head of the Federation of National Governments (FNC) security presence aboard Ciudad de Cielo (City in the City or CdC), is afforded such an opportunity, a reasonably by-the-books posting to a place where murder is unknown, and humanity, awash in dreamy visions of a pure, intergalactic journeying future, is developing all kinds of cutting-edge technology.
“You actually sound sanguine about it,’ Alice states. ‘I mean, don’t you care? Isn’t some part of you ashamed that we all came here to drive our civilisation towards something noble, while instead you’re just playing your part in dragging it into a cesspit? This place is supposed to be the mother that is going to give birth to humanity’s child. yet from where I’m standing, it looks like the mother is a drunken whore.'” (P. 190)
What it isn’t developing, and no one knows this better than crooked private security force operator and ex-policewoman, Nikki “Fixx” Freeman – and if you’re wondering, no, she isn’t fixing the plumbing – is a whole new sensibility, with the usual graft, corruption and sleazy self-interest awash in the bowels of the ostensibly squeaky-clean ideals-driven space station of 100,000 inhabitants.
No one in official circles will admit to this, naturally, and so when a dismembered body turns up in a state-of-the-art lab, events are set in motion that drag the bottom-dwelling tendencies of humanity slapbang into the gleaming ideals of its hoped-for future.
The more things change, the more they stay the same right?
Right, and Brookmyre does an entertaining and illuminating job of exploring this clash of pragmatism and ideals as Blake, who is as by-the-the-books as they come finds herself paired with Freeman, eyes opened to the fact that while rules might exists, there’s a sizable chunk of humanity, including Freeman, who simply don’t care.
Or do they?
What makes Places in the Darkness such an appealing read is that Brookmyre takes the time, in the midst of an elegantly-constructed, fast-paced murder investigation, to explore what led to the murders taking place at all.
Without any polemic imperative at all, and content to let the message percolate out as argumentative snippets between Blake and Freeman who really are an astonishingly-good odd couple pairing, the author dissects how even the most idealistic of undertakings can end up mired in the endless capacity of people to put self-interest ahead of grand designs.
Deep diving into the fetid underworld of CdC, where people aren’t bad so much as desperate for some kind of betterment in life and relief from mistakes and trauma of the past – it’s why most of them are on the station in the first place – the mystery uncovers not just a grand conspiracy but a societal chasm between the haves and have-nots, which ideals aside, threatens the FNC’s aim to shoot people off into the galactic void on generation ships to find a better future for all.
It’s so deliciously, excitingly good, and it is if left untrammelled by our base human desires, but alas, we are who we are, and while it would be nice if ideals could triumph, unchecked every time, that rarely happens, a dynamic that sees itself repeated in Places in the Darkness with gripping storytelling aplomb.
“Down below she can see Nikki. She is handcuffed, kneeling on a sheet of black plastic with two men standing over her, their backs to Alice. They are dressed identically in charcoal fatigues; they are not uniforms but there is something unquestionably military about their appearance. One of them is holding a knife.
Alice stands up and raises the suppression rifle. The weapon automatically links to her lens, overlaying a cross-hair upon her view, which she places over the knifeman’s head. She takes a steadying breath and pulls the trigger.” (P. 299)
That’s not to say that Brookmyre is a pessimist mired in cynicism, and that the novel is an exercise in sleuthing-driven throwing-your-hands-in-the-air dead idealism; it is realistic though and while there is an ending befitting the genre in which the story takes place, it is very much one that keeps one eye cocked on the fact that people, happy ending and justice are all tainted by the same fallen brush.
Melding together a murder mystery with some incisive dissection of societal constructs and impulses isn’t an easy undertaking since the tendency is for one to subsume the other, or to slow down the action, but Brookmyre manages it with narrative dexterity, offering characters, themes and plots that may not seem like natural companions at first but who quickly, and with ripping prose that holds you in place right through to the compelling end, feel like they belong together.
It would be nice to think that the poster taglines and breathlessly idealistic mutterings of official literature could prevail over less laudatory sentiments, and who knows perhaps one day they will, but that rarely happens and thank goodness too because it gives us stories like Places in the Darkness and gifted authors like Brookmyre prepared to tell them.