Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Paul McAuley: Whole Wide World

A few weeks ago I recommended White Devils, a science-fiction thriller by Paul McAuley. Happily, I am now in a position to speak enthusiastically about another of McAuley's books, Whole Wide World, hereinafter referred to as WWW.

As I explained last time, McAuley has been around for a while. He has written about ten novels and many short stories. Along the way he has also won several prestigious prizes in the field of SF.

WWW, as its title suggests, is largely concerned with the internet and the flow of information in and around it. The novel is set in a near-future England, mostly London. This future England has been attacked by terrorists, in a series of events known as the Infowar, and for a while at least all electronic communication was wiped out. Now the systems are being built back up, but a new generation of Puritans has acquired massive influence. Porn is illegal in the UK, and there are surveillance cameras on every street corner, tracking anyone and everyone, wherever they go. All information is tightly controlled.

It is in this world that a vicious murder is committed. A young woman is executed, live, as it were, in front of the webcams, and her murder is witnessed by whoever has logged on, anywhere in the world.

The book is essentially a murder mystery. The lead character is a Detective Inspector who is despised by his colleagues and has been posted to an administrative backwater. He takes it upon himself to track down the killer.

So far so orthodox, of course. Down these mean streets, and all that. As usual, everything depends on how well the plot is handled. And in this case the handling is quite exceptional.

It is, I think, a measure of McAuley's skills if I say that immediately before and after reading WWW I tried three other thrillers, all of them written by famous names.

The first, by a huge American seller, was a thoroughly researched and carefully constructed book; the technique was more than competent. Sadly, however, I found it all a bit too manufactured, and gave up after about fifty pages.

The other two books were by British authors, both of them well known in the thriller genre, and both books had covers which carried enthusiastic puffs from big names. But in one case I thought the characters were pure cardboard, and in the other I found the events just too depressing. Yes, we all know that cops get burnt out, and that they destroy their own marriages, and so forth. But it ain't fun to read about, and I have this curiously old-fashioned view that reading a novel ought to be an entertaining. I got through about forty pages of each of these two before abandoning them, but the McAuley book I found easy to read.

The unpleasantness factor is certainly a difficulty when you are writing about violent sadistic murder. I don't know about you, but I have had more than enough of serial killers. So anyone who, like McAuley, chooses to write about such crimes has some serious obstacles to overcome, at least where this reader is concerned.

Fortunately, McAuley seemed to me to get everything just right. The gore is realistically described, but not in so disgusting a manner that one just wishes to switch off. The lead character seems to be a real person, as opposed to something manufactured on a computer, and the post-Infowar world which is described seems to me to be depressingly credible, and more than a little likely to come about. In short, you are given something to think about, if you are the thinking sort, in addition to a first-class mystery story about whodunit and why.

Finally, there is a love story. And, although our hero does not emerge smelling of roses, with everything forgiven -- far from it -- the author does end on a note of optimism. Which is fine by me. There is enough stark tragedy in the real world, thank you. As anyone living in the UK and reading the crime reports will have noticed over the last few days.


Anonymous said...

Have added Mr McAuley's book to my book list.

Was hoping you were going to comment on the extraordinary story via Book2book today -

"US Airport stores offer 50% return on hardcover books"

Perhaps tomorrow.

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