Friday, March 2, 2012

Review of Incompetence by Rob Grant (Gollancz, 2003)

Harry is an deep cover agent at large in Europe keeping an eye out for unusual happenings and security issues. The former occur in spades as Europe is now one entity, tolerant of incompetence, and where everyday farce is almost mandatory. He uses a series of identities, including Harry Salt, Harry Tequila and Harry Lime, and communicates through the personal ads of various magazines. One of his contacts, Klingferm, has summoned him to Rome. Before Harry can meet him, however, Klingferm is murdered. As Harry starts to investigate it’s clear that someone is committing a series of high profile murders designed to look like accidents. Following the trail, Harry travels to Paris and then onto Vienna, moving from one mishap to another, trailed by an Italian cop with anger management issues and hampered by a society that basks in incompetence, on the trail of a killer who seems anything but incompetent.

This is a somewhat of a curious book. A kind of futuristic, comic noir. Its strengths are some very well written, clever and genuinely funny scenes. The weaknesses the unevenness and disjointedness of the whole work and the fact that story is pretty much all surface and no depth. Essentially the book consists of a set of linked set pieces framed within a future united Europe that is overly bureaucratic and largely dysfunctional. Everything is subordinate to the gags in the set pieces, which means the characterisation consists of little more than caricature, and the plot is loosely strung together. The story probably would have worked more effectively if the plot and characterisation had come first, and the humour infused into them. I almost stopped reading the book at a couple of points because the narrative was stretched so thin and some of the scenes are below par. I persevered though and was rewarded by some excellent set pieces. Overall, a book that both frustrates and entertains in pretty much equal measure. The truly first class bits though are worth the effort.

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