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Book Review

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Description: Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks
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Wrharwood
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« on: June 19, 2008, 21:13:01 PM »

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, Christopher Brookmyre, 2007, reviewed by William Harwood.

 “One thing he knows for certain, however: death is not the end—it’s the ultimate undercover assignment.” That promo from the back cover of Rubber Ducks had me fearing that I had made an appalling mistake in recommending (on the basis of an article in New Humanist) that my local library purchase this book. Then I opened it and found the dedication, “For James Randi and Richard Dawkins”, and was able to breathe easily again. (The New Humanist article, Sep/Oct 2007, would have reassured me, but several months after reading it all I could remember was the book’s title.)

 I had a problem with the statement on page 3 that skeptics who reject the “ghost” hypothesis “are as slavish and inflexible in their fidelity as the most dedicated religious fundamentalist. Nothing will sway them from their beliefs, and they exhibit a staggering level of closed-mindedness that stems from an unshakable faith in their own intellectual superiority.” That those words are put into the mouth of one of the first-person narrators who will turn out to be less than credible is not immediately apparent, and they may well prevent the book’s target audience of educated realists from reading any further. And a few pages further on, when the same narrator endorses the legitimacy of the obscene humbuggery of psychic surgery, readers who think she speaks for the author may see that as the final straw and start shredding the pages into unperforated bum-wipes. That would be a mistake.

 There are many passages in later pages in which a first-person narrator cites superstitious hogwash in a manner that gives the impression it represents the author’s beliefs. But then comes an eleven-page scene (73-83) that annihilates the insane beliefs of the morally repugnant Jehovah’s Witnesses cult as totally as anything I have ever read. From that point on, I felt that I was reading something worth my while. And I was positively delighted when Jack Parlabane, the holdover investigator from Brookmyre’s previous mystery novels, explaining how he came to be a university rector after being nominated as a joke, boasted (p. 89) that, “I managed to outdo George W. Bush’s achievement in getting comprehensively humped in an election yet ending up with the job anyway.” I was equally delighted when an exploiter of the spiritualism hoax explained why the Catholic Church ordered its mindslaves to shun spiritualism on pain of excommunication (pp. 250-251): “If you’re McDonald’s, you don’t want another burger franchise opening up across the street, do you?”

 A character I was initially tempted to equate with Uri Geller declared (pp. 92-93) that “‘fake medium’ is practically a tautology. The only real distinction to be drawn is between the ones who know they’re fakes and the ones who are also deceiving themselves.” But when he added, “What I’m still trying to work out is whether the latter also describes me,” that ruled out the Geller equation, as Geller is assuredly well aware that he is a fake.

 When the novel finally got around to explaining the conjuring behind the pseudo-Geller’s accomplishment of seemingly inexplicable “remote readings”—long after I had started fearing that maybe the author was as much a True Believer as his Jillian Noble narrator—I found myself wondering if such shenanigans, designed to fool the University of Edinburgh into establishing a Chair of Spiritual Science, were in fact an exposé of how that same university in 1985 was deluded into establishing the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, which, despite two decades of failing to produce a single replicable positive result, continues to exist, presumably on taxpayer money. At least George Washington University had the good sense to cut its losses and close its parapsychology lab when James Randi exposed its researchers as gullible suckers who could be fooled by schoolboy conjuring tricks.

 Why Brookmyre uses the American spelling, asshole, on page 179, and the British spelling, arsehole, on page 185, I cannot even guess. And fifty years (Perth, 1958) after I first heard the expression, “have sex”, used to mean an intimate activity rather than a quality like height and weight, I should be sufficiently used to it to accept that Brookmyre uses such baby talk (p. 235) because it has become part of the language. But I still shudder. Likewise his use (p. 125) of the kindergarten preterit, “snuck”. Ditto his having a male narrator describe himself as a virgin (p. 235), as if “male virgin”, a man capable of producing a legitimate heir because he has never been implanted with bastard seed, were not an oxymoron. And narrator Parlabane’s denigration of the spook crooks, addressing them by the Old English name of a female body part (p. 287), is bound to puzzle American readers, since Americans use the word only as the ultimate put-down of a woman, whereas in England it is a term of abuse hurled only at men. But since there is no American edition of Rubber Ducks, the problem is purely academic.

 While Rubber Ducks seems at first to be no more than a fictionalization of the debate over the paranormal, it eventually turns out to be a violent-crime story, with antagonists who make Ernst Blofeld look like an amateur. That it follows the Columbo pattern of identifying the primary perpetrator up-front, so that the only suspense lies in how the crime will be solved, was logical, given that it parallels a particular Columbo episode in which a fictionalized Uri Geller murdered a fictionalized James Randi.

 Fans of the Jack Parlabane character will be pleased to  learn that this will not be Brookmyre’s last novel about their hero, although how that can be, since we learn of his death early in the story, they will have to read the book to find out. 

William Harwood on Amazon
« Last Edit: June 20, 2008, 10:16:54 AM by bluegray V » Logged
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