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Book Review: The Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre

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Without our ability to have faith in something, I doubt very many of us would be able to get out of bed in the morning. As far as I'm concerned, having faith has nothing to do with whether you believe in a deity or not, it's about being able to believe in something that you can't see but know will happen anyway. It's not much of an act of faith, but believing the sun will come up every morning is just as surely an act of faith as believing that eating a piece bread and drinking some wine is the same as snacking on the son of God.

Seriously though, every time we do anything where we have no idea of the outcome we are committing an act of faith. Starting a new relationship, trusting a surgeon to cut you open properly, getting up on stage to perform a song in front of a live audience for the first time, or starting out on any new creative project all require you to have faith in either yourself of someone else.

Of course in all of those instances, the more success we have, the greater our faith in the successful outcome. We have proof that we are able to sing in front of a new audience and not be booed off stage so we get back up there and do it again with even more faith in our abilities to succeed. The same rule of thumb could be applied to all the instances cited above.

_44037491_ducks203.jpgNow in the eyes of some people the very fact that we have proof of something diminishes the role played by faith. According to them, it can only be faith-based if there's no proof to verify how something occurred, or if we believe in spite of evidence pointing to the fact that what happened can't be substantiated. In other words, blind faith — where, in spite of the fact that you have no reason to believe in something or someone, you do anyway.

In Christopher Brookmyre's latest book, Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, available in Canada through Penguin Canada, he turns his sights on the people who rely the most on other people's blind faith – psychics. He specifically takes aim at the ones who claim to be able to commune with the dead, and are able to deliver messages to us from the other side.

The "Unsinkable Rubber Ducks" of the title are a reference to the fact that no matter what proof is brought against the charlatans and fakes who populate the world of psychics, there will still be people who will refuse to give up their faith. While willing to admit to an individual's perfidy, they claim it's not proof that there's no such thing as psychic powers, only that a particular person was a fake. In the face of that unshakeable — idiocy, blindness, or as some would have it, faith — there really is nothing that can be done.

But if you're Christopher Brookmyre that doesn't stop you from taking a real good stab at it. Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks features the return of investigative reporter Jack Parlabane, a character who, as is his wont, soon finds himself up to the neck in a story taking on the forces of evil; better known as the right wing loonies who want to turn the clock back three hundred years. In this case it's the fight to endow a Spiritual Science Chair at a Scottish university in order to legitimize the pseudo sciences that have no basis in physical evidence.

The big gun that they have brought into play, aside from the four million pounds they're willing to fork out for the endowment, is the self-deprecating Gabriel Lafayette, psychic extraordinaire from New Orleans. Not only does Gabriel come with impeccable credentials from America and appearances on television shows, he's accompanied by his own personal sceptic, an American scientist named Easy Mather.

Like most universities the world over, the offer of four million pounds makes this pretty hard to refuse, the only problem being that the head of the science department, whose permission is needed for the chair to become part of the Science department, actually believes in the scientific method. Which means he refuses to accept there is such a thing as psychic powers without concrete evidence provided by tamper-proof testing procedures.

This is where our hero enters the picture. Jack is not only known for his work as an investigative reporter, but also his ability to pull aside the curtain and expose the little man pulling the strings and yanking the levers that make everything look like magic. On top of that he's just been elected rector of the university by the student population, (the fact that he was third choice and only won because the winner dropped dead of a heart attack, and the runner-up was doing time for possession of a controlled substance does nothing to alter the fact that he did win), so there's even an excuse for him being chosen for the task of helping oversee the tests on the would-be "psychic in residence."

brookmyrechristopher150.jpgIn previous books featuring Jack Parlabane, I've often thought of him as "his master's voice". Whenever Brookmyre feels the need to take a poke at a particularly unsavoury tactic of the right wing in the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular, he brings in Jack to reveal the details of Brookmyre's own work investigating how things happened and how the strings of power are really manipulated.

Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is no exception, which means a wild and woolly roller coaster of a whodunnit done it mixed in with wicked humour, sly satire, and an attitude problem that should be fed intravenously to any reporter who feels that reprinting a government press release and putting their byline on it counts as investigative journalism.

Unfortunately saying anything more about the plot, or even how Brookmyre has structured the narrative, would be too much spoiler information. I can say Brookmyre's writing is as astringent and dead on as usual and without the normal whining of the left. Instead of merely complaining about how "mean and nasty" conservatives are, he reveals how they manage to get away with so much on the political front.

It's not magic, it's sure not because God is on their side, but it's because they are the  masters of manipulation. They never let a debate be clouded by the facts, always ensure they speak in vague generalities about belief, faith, and country, and contrive to make the other side out to be Godless, betrayers of all that's "good and decent about what we hold dear in Scotland", which means absolute bollocks but sounds great in a sound bite.

Brookmyre doesn't spell out any hidden agendas, point out secret conspiracy theories, or any of that stuff so beloved by the loony left, because he doesn't have to. Anything he writes about is known public policy of conservative parties the world over, platforms that nobody seems to remember until after they are elected and start carrying them out.

But the best thing about Christopher Brookmyre isn't that he knows his politics, it's that he's a brilliant storyteller, creates thoroughly believable characters, has a wicked sense of humour, and in this, his eleventh book, is still as much a breath of fresh air to read as he was with his first book. Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is funny, intelligent, and a great read. You can take that on faith.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • James Carson

    Excellent review, a real appetiser for a book I’m looking forward to. Brookmyre’s a real hero to me. He got me reading again, after a long time away from fiction. Even better, he got me writing again. Thanks to him. And to you.