Thursday, 27 March 2014

"Should We Be Nice To Trifles?"

I was going to start this post with a criticism, but a decade and change of educational experience has taught me to venerate the praise sandwich above all else, so I'd like to kick off proceedings by noting that Mike Carey has very nice hair.

(Well, it seems nice. In photos, I mean.  I've not done the most basic of chemical analyses. I might have my obsessions, but I'm not a stalker.  The hours look terrible).

Compliment bread laid down, we may reach for the criticism pickle: Dead Men's Boots was a wee bit of a disappointment.

Not in the sense of being a bad book - it's actually a very good book, boasting the usual smart mix of grease-stains and ghouls.  We're talking in relative terms, here. Still, whilst The Devil You Know set up a tremendously interesting world and Vicious Circle filled out the dark corners in all the right ways, Dead Men's Boots seemed mainly content to danse macabre its way across the floor of the same disco. The queasy joy of unsettling discoveries was somewhat muted. The view remained lovely (for a particularly depraved and black definition of "lovely" to which I dedicate myself utterly), but there was a sense of treading water whilst we gazed at it.

Happily, with Thicker Than Water we return to our grimly determined front crawl towards murky objects in deep waters.

Going into detail here is unwise. Horror and crime are the two genres that most suffer from being too forewarned/forearmed, and for combinations of the two this becomes exponentially more true. I shall limit myself to saying both the mythos and the stakes of Felix Castor's strange and scary world are both upped here, the orbit of the last book decaying into a downward spiral.

(Why is there never an upward spiral?  Why is it when things improve Archimedes' prettiest contribution to geometry is nowhere to be found? Is it because "downwards spiral" is something we got from damaged warplanes? Because yes, if you've thrown your Spitfire into an upward spiral, you're probably not giving your all for Blighty.)

This recapturing of momentum is really all the series needed to return to the top-tier grime'n'gore'n'noir'n'grimoires of the earlier novels.  I've mentioned before how I like my horror served; thick with mystery and with enough shocks along the way to punch you out of the mindset required to solve any of them. It should be like trying to do a jigsaw on a roller-coaster you're sharing with a corpse. Thicker Than Water delivers splendidly on that score. True, the various mysteries here are maybe a little easier to tease out than they have been previously (though perhaps I'm just getting keyed into the way Carey structures his conundrums), but that actually ties in well to the atmosphere of the book.  When a story is as horribly tragic as this one, the odd sniff of dramatic irony adds to the uneasy sense of impending disaster.

And a tragedy this certainly is.  Maybe not in the commonly-used sense of the term, I suppose - with another novel in this first-person series written and another planned, it gives little away to say our hero lives to fight another day. But no-one who staged this at the theatre would want to call it anything else (well, maybe "difficult to block"); Carey here trumps his usual bittersweet ending with something that could only be considered sweet in the "any landing you can walk away from" sense.

It's a bumpy ride, in other words, with more than one gut-punch along the way. There is, ultimately, nothing more horrifying than your own family's past.  Well, actually, there's at least one thing more horrifying, but I'm not going to spoil what it is.  Just read the book, and cry in despair at the freezing misery that grips you ever more tightly, until it hurts to breathe or think or, worst of all, try predicting what might be coming.

Then start the next book immediately.

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