It seems there is something about hitting the mid-40 mark that sets people to looking back with regret on missed opportunities, or why there never even were opportunities to begin with. Such is the situation for Jane Fleming, 46-year-old mother and grandmother, protagonist of Christopher Brookmyre’s latest novel, all fun and games until somebody loses an eye (AFAG for short, according to one character in the novel)
Being a housewife was a far cry from the 19-year-old punk with the nom de guere Blue Bell (to match her hair colour), who had been in the audience for the infamous Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly show in Glasgow, for Pete’s sake. The fantasies of being a super agent a la James Bond had never been more than that, but she had always thought that life should have more to it than figuring out how many ways to keep the carpet clean, and watching sports with her husband every evening.
Still, when the world of espionage does come knocking at her door she finds herself more prepared than one would expect. It’s not just those two days a week at the gym that come in handy, or the inherited grandparent’s sixth sense for “something ain’t right.” That old adage of not coming between a mother bear and her cub becomes all the impetus she needs to make the transition from frumpy frowsy frau, to Jane Fleming 007.
Chris Brookmyre delights in bringing ordinary people into a world of paranoia that could just possibly be true. From the Thatcherite politico-type who tries to close a hospital by having the permanent patients killed off in Quite Ugly One Morning, to the conservative Christian plot to cause a tidal wave by exploding nuclear warheads off the coast of Los Angeles in Not the End Of The World, no nefarious possibility is too implausible for his imagination.
The secret behind Mr. Brookmyre’s success is that his characters, from the villain of the piece to the protagonist, are eminently recognizable and believable. Their presence lends credibility to what one would normally consider the paranoid ravings of a lunatic. None of them seem particularly out of the ordinary, aside from their either fanatical obsession with getting what they want, in the case of the villain, or their ability to keep their heads (sometimes literally), while others around them fall to pieces.
His books are full of references to pop culture that current 40-somethings can’t help but identify with. Even though the backdrop is more often across the ocean in his native Scotland, references to the Clash, The Buzzcocks, and other pop figures of the time provide enough common ground to get past colloquial dialogue laced with mentions of “Tims” (Catholics), “Celtics and Rangers.” (Collectively known as the “Old Firm,” they are symbols of the religious divide in Scotland, Celtics being the football team supported by the Catholics, and Rangers by the Protestants.).
Part of the fun in reading Brookmyre’s books comes from not only trying to decipher what’s going on, but understanding such tidbits as “Nae chance. Anyway, I shot you afore you could set it aff.” Or my favourite from this book: “Haw Maw gaunny iron ma bondage troosers fur the night, pleeeease?” Loosely translated: ” Hey Ma, you gonna iron my bondage pants for the night, please?”
Unlike so many North American writers, Brookmyre makes no apologies for who his people are or for his—or their—politics. While unashamedly left-wing, he makes no bones about saying things like terrorists are wankers too scared to face anyone in a fight, or that the world would be a lot better off if they put wank magazines in hotels instead of Gideon’s bibles.
He’s not afraid to rip stripes off the establishment, while at the same time not letting anything as ridiculous as political correctness stand in the way of “a wee bit o’ fun.” All fun and games until somebody loses an eye is no exception. While his tone is a little less acerbic then in the past, he still has enough acid to spare to lash out at what he see as the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church concerning sex and marriage, and the ridiculousness of the whole Protestant/Catholic, Rangers/Celtic, which side are you on game that is played out on a regular basis.
But in this book his sites are trained on one specific enemy. Rather than spraying buckshot through the windows of the establishment, he targets the euphemistically-named Defence Industry. Jane’s son, Ross, had been working on a mysterious project that seems to have attracted the attention of all his firm’s competitors. Not only would it render most conventional armaments obsolete, but even worse, it would destroy their profit margins.
All of a sudden he disappears without a trace. Enter the shadowy figure of Bett and his team of specialists. Hired by Ross Fleming’s employers to find him before he can be sold to the highest bidder, they are the people to whom governments and businesses turn when something has to be done beyond the fringes of legality.
From hunting down white slavers, testing security systems, and removing embarrassments, Bett’s team has been able to handle anything thrown their way. But when dealing with people as unscrupulous as the Defence Industry (including their current employer), you need to bring in some real star power. Someone who will stop at nothing—somebody’s mom.
After foiling an attempted kidnapping of her granddaughter (Ross’ niece), Jane receives a call on a cell phone that somehow has ended up in her purse. The man’s voice at the other end tells her if she would like to help her son, she should be in France at a specific address within 24 hours. Waving aside her protestations of lack of passport and transportation, the voice reiterates its demand and signs off.
Jane Fleming, who has never even had a parking ticket, proceeds to compensate for a blameless life by stealing two vehicles, a passport, and crossing a frontier using fraudulent papers. Put that boldly it may seem far-fetched, but Brookmyre’s writing and logic make her decisions irrefutable and obvious. We know enough about Jane’s character that every step on her journey is well within the realm of reasonable, no matter how beyond the pale each may seem.
Chris Brookmyre’s plots have always been convoluted, full of enough twists and turns to challenge the most experienced rally-car driver, but he always manages to steer you round the course without any problem. Unusually for him, all fun and games contains a plot twist at the very end, but not one that changes the outcome in any manner. All I will say about it is that it adds another layer of slime to the coats he has slathered on the armament business.
While Mr. Brookmyre hasn’t quite obtained the high-water mark of forty himself (he was born in 1968), it’s an indication of his skill as a writer that he is able to throw himself into the unknown and write about it with a voice of authority. This should come as no surprise to readers of his previous works, where he has always been meticulous in his research on a variety of subjects.
But to translate that into a character as believable as Jane Fleming is quite a step up from just spewing out facts and figures on what causes tidal waves. That we see the majority of the book’s action through the eyes of two women (the other being a member of Bett’s team of professionals) is nothing new for Mr. Brookmyre. He has a long history of creating believable characters of the opposite sex.
What distinguishes him from other males who have done this is that there is never the feeling of him making a big deal out of the issue. Intent upon telling the story, the characters are just who they are, and how they react to situations is based on the person he has created, not any notions of gender behaviour.
Christopher Brookmyre’s novels have always stood out from others of the suspense/thriller/mystery genre for their breezy, giving-the-finger attitude to authority, the roller-coast-ride plot lines, and his focus on character development. all fun and games is no exception.
From the prologue where he hooks us into the first of the plot’s twists via Bett’s team, to the conclusion where Jane ties up some loose threads, this latest diversion from the diabolical mind and satirical pen of Chris Brookmyre joins the list of his books that can be read repeatedly for the sheer joy of watching the story unfold before you. Unlike most of today’s so called satirists, who either strike one note and then play it to death, or are unable to shake off their bitterness, Brookmyre can hit many targets with deadly accuracy while keeping his heart open for what is good in the world.
Like a favourite movie whose plot you know like the back of your hand, yet which somehow continues to hold you riveted to your seat, Chris Brookmyre’s novels are so much more than just a plot waiting to be uncovered that you will want to read them repeatedly.
If you want to read some of Chris Brookmyre’s short stories, or find out a little more about him, check out his site here.