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Boiling A Frog by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2006*, 402p.

 Boiling A Frog cover

The usual Brookmyre shenanigans, this time involving the nexus between politicians in the then new Scottish Parliament, the tabloid press and religious organisations. Boiling A Frog is a third outing for Jack Parlabane; except outing is not quite le mot juste, as for most of the book Parlabane is in prison after breaking into the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

The book is flawed by the fact that the plot mostly happens in flashback or offstage while Parlabane is in jail and concerns a conspiracy to restore the primacy of “family values” to public life by framing various MSPs. It was as a by-product of the conspiracy and an unsettled state of mind due to problems in his private life that Parlabane was trapped into attempting the break-in.

If you stop to think for a minute the whole thing becomes unbelievable but believability has never really been the point with Brookmyre. You go along for the ride.

While not as amusing as other Brookmyre stories Boiling a Frog nevertheless has its moments.

Nowhere in the text is the strange title alluded to. An explanation is, however, given in the author’s note before the start.

*I read a reprint. The book was originally published in 2000.

The Country of the Blind by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 1997.

The Country of the Blind cover

A wealthy and powerful newspaper owner is murdered in a luxury house in Perthshire. The police have apprehended the four burglars responsible. But one of them has left a package with his lawyer, to be opened if he didn’t make a quick return to her office. And the security consultant Donald Lafferty, friend of journalist Jack Parlabane, dies minutes after uttering an oblique message to the assembled TV crews outside the police station where the suspects are being held. A tale of intrigue and conspiracy follows where skulduggery at the heart of government is revealed and unravelled. While the plot and its resolution is not entirely convincing the book is vastly readable with the occasional joke or reference thrown in to lighten things. I particularly liked, “I’m a man of stealth and haste.”

It is interesting that this was written in the dog days of the 1990s Conservative Government yet reads as well now as it might have done then; as if nothing has changed, which of course, in some respects, it hasn’t.

I have noted before Brookmyre’s usage “borne of” when “born of” makes more sense. He adds here, “up to high doe” (which gave me an image of a deer on a plinth) and “thrusted” as the past tense of thrust.

This was only Brookmyre’s second novel so a few infelicities are to be expected. But he has the increasingly irritating habit here of beginning every new scene in medias res and then flashing back to its beginning. He also feels the need to provide backstory for every new viewpoint character when they take up the narrative thread. While this is a timeworn literary technique it is no more than a form of info dumping.

The Country of the Blind is a Brookmyre. It does what it says on the tin. All well and good. Sometimes that is what hits the spot.

all fun and games until somebody loses an eye by Christopher Brookmyre

Little Brown, 2005. 407p.

Well, this was a first. Never before have I thought of a Brookmyre novel, “this is a bit slow.” There have been digressions and lacunae interspersed in the plots but these have always been leavened by the humour permeating his writing. Once the action gets going this one does perk up a bit but then slows down again before picking up once more.

Two chapters (crucially including the first) are almost entirely devoted to information dumping disguised as back story. Where such information is essential to the plot (and here some is) it would be better unfolded in the narrative, shown to us rather than told. Admittedly that would have made the book even longer than it now is, but still.

The plot itself revolves around a worker in the arms industry, Ross Fleming, who has invented a device that threatens to turn that murky world upside down. The heroine, though, is his middle-aged and previously homely (yet ex-punk) mother, Jane, who is “€œrecruited”€ by the team tasked with the job of recovering Ross after he disappears suddenly.

In the end it all becomes more than a little unbelievable – and Jane’€™s transformation into Action Woman is too quick – but Brookmyre plots have never really withstood much close scrutiny.

The book is still characteristically readable but somewhere along the way the author’€™s distinctive humour seems to have been mislaid. It is almost as if Brookmyre might have thought his usual comedic approach is somehow unworthy and he was making an effort at being a more “€œserious”€ writer. There are still flashes, though; a nice aside on the Catholic Church’€™s propensity to move doctrinal goalposts and a rant on the disproportionate contribution of Scots to human progress.

If I were recommending a starting point for potential Brookmyre readers I’€™d suggest other books of his, though.

A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre

Little, Brown, 2006. 344p

This starts with a blizzard of expletives as a pair of former classmates attempt, comically unsuccessfully, to get rid of two bodies. One of them is soon picked up by the police but the other is gravely ill in hospital after being stabbed in the eye. The first suspect asks for another former classmate, Martin Jackson, now a successful media lawyer in London, to help clear him.

The female Detective Superintendent in charge of investigating the case is also a former classmate.

While I did not require it I can understand why Brookmyre (or his publishers) thought it necessary to include a glossary at the back. Anyone not brought up in Scotland – probably the west of Scotland at that – might otherwise barely decipher a fair bit of the dialogue and prose. Said glossary is a mine of delightful usages, Brookmyre’s predilections (diddies is defined not only as mammary glands but also as, “See Greenock Morton FC,” plus there are repeated references to St Mirren wins over the Old Firm and sore points about refereeing decisions against them about which Brookmyre is clearly not bitter, not at all, and various derogatory terms are said to apply to Scottish broadsheet literary critics, about whom ditto) and is also extremely funny to those in the know, especially about the seat of the intelligences of Old Firm supporters.

The portrayal by Brookmyre of a West of Scotland (Paisley) Catholic schooling is bleak, not so much because of the adults in authority – though they get their fair share of disapprobation – but for the apparently unremitting viciousness and one-upmanship of the children one to another.

As to the novel’s flaws, jump cuts are frequent and sudden, there are too many characters, the murder plot which is used to draw us in to the action is perfunctory at best and some of the clues necessary to unravelling the mystery are given far too late but Brookmyre’s focus is more on the children’s school lives.

The glossary at the end is alone worth the admission, though.

One quibble. North of the Clyde the word skoosh is very definitely reserved for a carbonated drink – scoosh is what it does when you open the bottle after all – and never, as Brookmyre has it, for the uncarbonated variety.

One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2007, 373p.

I’ve not read them in order of publication but it’s possible to discern a recurring pattern in Brookmyre’s novels, apart from the obvious humour and violence. A bunch of bad guys (mercenaries/terrorists here) interrupts the daily business of some ordinary punters (in this one it’s a school reunion.) Add in too a denouement in an isolated setting (a converted oil rig.) There may also be passing reference to someone living in, or a citizen of, the US.

The more interesting parts of One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night are based on the interactions of the former schoolmates. Brookmyre manages to convey the excruciating nature such reunions surely entail. That scenario might have been enough to carry a novel on its own without the intrusion of the thriller elements (which admittedly would have been a different kind of book.) Here, while the comedy terrorists are necessary for the book’s plot, they are too unconvincing to suspend disbelief.

I note that schooldays have also figured strongly in the pasts of other Brookmyre protagonists, particularly Angelique Di Xavia.

One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night might be a good enough introduction to Brookmyre’s oeuvre but I didn’t find it as satisfying a read as A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away nor The Sacred Art Of Stealing.

The Sacred Art Of Stealing by Christopher Brookmyre

Little, Brown, 2002, 419p

This is another novel featuring Detective Inspector Angelique De Xavia, who appeared in A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away (see my review here.)

Its prologue was faintly annoying as Brookmyre seemed to be indulging in explicitness merely for the sake of it. Moreover, when the book proper unfolds it is apparent that its chronology and the bulk of the narrative don’t quite fit. However, the main story as it progresses is engaging and the complex plot is revealed at just the right pace.

Brookmyre’s signature blending of humour with crime is again a key component. The set up, here, involves a bank robbery carried out by a gang dressed as clowns, or rather as one member of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. The robbers are at pains to make sure the hostages they have taken (which include De Xavia after she infiltrates the building and is captured) are put at ease; their leader insisting they are not the bad guys.

The character of DI Di Xavia does not convince as it did in A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away as, here, she enters into a, quite frankly, unbelievable relationship. But, for plot purposes, she must. Brookmyre’s touch lets him down with this but the book is never less than readable; at times laugh, or at least chuckle, out loud funny and the plot is well worked out.

It was also refreshing to read a depiction of members of the criminal fraternity who were not unremittingly ill intentioned – though, of course the real baddies in the book are.


Christopher Brookmyre, one of whose books I am reading just now, says he has been a Buddy since 1976. Given that, I found it a little surprising that the novel contains an extended riff on the vicissitudes of being a Rangers fan (otherwise known as Bluenoses, Teddy Bears or – by the uncharitable – Huns.)

Like they would know anything about the trials and tribulations of being a football supporter. When was the last time they went decades without winning anything? When were they ever in danger of relegation; or suffered such a fate? Their only contact point with the perennial disappointment of being a fan is in the European arena – and even there they mostly refuse to acknowledge the fact that they usually punch above their weight.

Brookmyre gives himself the best excuse by making his main character a season ticket holder at Ibrox. Perhaps making her a St Mirren supporter would have been too much of an exposure of private grief. And it does give him the opportunity to lampoon the less analytical supporters of both of Glasgow’s ugly football sisters.

But did he perhaps fear the book’s sales would be smaller if he’d made her a fan of a wee team?

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre

Little, Brown, 1996

(The pictured cover is of a paperback edition not the hardback one I read.)

Like Brookmyre’s A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, this is another library book sale buy (from a month or so ago.)

Jack Parlabane, an investigative journalist on the run from persons unknown who tried to have him killed in Los Angeles, accidentally encroaches on a bizarre murder scene in Edinburgh. Along with the woman DC who discovers him there and the wife of the deceased he investigates the background to the killing. That’s it really.

Quite Ugly One Morning‘s style is similar to A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away though here the jocular tone is a bit more at odds with the content – but the body count is high in both, even if in this one the killings are mostly off-stage.

This was Brookmyre’s first novel and has some first novel’s faults. With his seeming determination to dot every i and cross every t it’s apparent that Brookmyre was trying a bit too hard but Quite Ugly One Morning is a light, easy, uncomplicated and gratifyingly not overlong read, with dashes of humour thrown in. I did chortle out loud once or twice. Ideal stuff for relaxing into and whiling a few hours away.

A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away by Christopher Brookmyre

Little Brown, 2001

Weekend cover

This is one of the spoils of the library book sale I posted about a while back. I’d never read any Brookmyre and thought this might be as good an introduction as any.

The plot centres on acts of terrorism. In this it resembles Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel but Brookmyre’s slant is more comedic. For example one of his viewpoint characters goes on a wonderful rant about all things Aberdonian (which also harbours an incidental side-swipe at Dundee) and there is an English lesson on A Midsummer Night’s Dream which descends into farce. In these post September 11th, July 7th and June 30th times such interweaving of light and dark does not perhaps sit as well as when the book was published in 2001 and, in Britain at least (with the agreement in Northern Ireland,) terrorism seemed less threatening. A key encounter early in the book does in fact take place at Glasgow Airport, a setting which has more resonance now than then.

You may have gathered from the above the novel is yet another multi-stranded narrative. (Is there no escape?) We meet Angelique De Xavia, a black female Glasgow cop into languages and martial arts; Raymond Ash, a teacher new to the profession but with a previous background in computer games; Simon Darcourt, an old university acquaintance of his; Lexy and Wee Murph, two pupils from his school who manage accidentally to get caught up in things. Also in the mix are references to Lobey Dosser and Rank Bajin, creations of the Glasgow cartoonist Bud Neill.

However, structurally something was awry. There was a considerable amount of info dumping – perhaps inevitably given the scenario – but also too much intrusion of backstories which interrupted the flow of the plot. This last may have been to inject an extra dose of literariness into the endeavour but I found it irritating.

The book contains more than a few misspellings (or, if I’m more generous, typos.) I wouldn’t have commented on this but Brookmyre himself highlights some of his incidental characters’ inability to spell (on placards in a street protest) and thereby makes himself, and his publisher, fair game.

The climax, where the cop’s martial arts, and the teacher’s gaming, skills naturally come in handy, occurs in a setting which would work well cinematically. I wonder if Brookmyre had thoughts on film or TV rights when he conceived it.

In sum, despite some longueurs, Brookmyre can write. He spins out a good plot, his characterisation is effective and he knows how to tease the reader. I’ll look out for him at future book sales.

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