Body Politic by Paul Johnston

NEL, 2003, 349 p

The Body Politic cover

The first publication of this novel was in 1997 when the date in which it is set, 2020, was a considerable time away. That makes it read a bit oddly in 2016.

Edinburgh – like many other parts of the UK – is independent, home to a never-ending tourist drawing festival, from which the city derives most of its income. It is run by the Enlightenment Council of City Guardians, which comes across as a sort of muted cross between a local Council, the Committee of Public Safety and a Kirk Session. The city’s citizens lead a circumscribed existence, unruly beards are obligatory, television, private cars and crime are banned, as is blues music – a problem for former city guardian Quintilian Dalrymple who at the novel’s start is asked by Katharine Kirkwood to find her missing brother. Before long however, a body is discovered whose murder bears remarkable similarities to those of the Ear, Nose and Throat Man from several years before. Dalrymple, as the expert on the previous crimes (and instrumental in their ceasing,) is roped back in to the Enlightenment’s police force (called guardians) to investigate. What follows is the usual tale of corruption, red-herringry and interconnectedness; though carried off with great skill. The crime element is pretty standard fare (as far as my reading of the genre goes) the bureaucratic hassles associated with the policeman’s/policewoman’s lot lent an air of strangeness by the unusual background. Various villains are unmasked, the murderer not whom you might expect. Kirkwood’s brother’s disappearance is peripheral to that aspect of the plot and only really exists to provide Dalrymple with a love interest.

Despite its (altered) future setting this cannot really be considered Science Fiction. In form and content it is more of a crime novel than anything else, there is no speculation involved. Quite why it appeared on the Herald’s list of “100” best Scottish Fiction Books, I’m not sure. I can only think that the Enlightenment might be supposed to be a peculiarly Scottish conception. It has Calvinistic undertones but the things it tolerates – encourages even – have traditionally been frowned upon at best and more usually excoriated.

Somewhat prophetically there is the line, “The USA had reverted to the self-obsession that’s a hallmark of their history.”

Pedant’s corner:- “didn’t use to mind” (didn’t used to,) had lead to (led to,) reponse (response,) “I wanted to sit down badly” (how can anyone sit down badly? – I think Johnston meant “I badly wanted to sit down,”) Mary, Queen of Scots’ (Mary, Queen of Scots is singular so; Mary, Queen of Scots’s,) “The USA had reverted to the self-obsession that’s a hallmark of their history,” (its history; unless you’re talking pre-American Civil War when the United States were referred to in the plural.)

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