A Snowball in Hell

I’ve just finished this latest by Christopher Brookmyre and it’s fantastic.  The novel displays Brookmyre’s ingenious storytelling, dead-on observations and characters so well drawn you practically feel like they’re in the room with you. The whole burns with the anger of Bill Hicks and a dark, joyous energy.

This one is not for the first time Brookmyre reader – it’s kind of a sequel to two previous books. The first of these introduced Simon Darcourt, a failed musician and frustrated suburban executive who turns to freelance terrorism when the dreams of his youth fade away. Calling himself the Black Spirit, Darcourt’s atrocities are motivated not by religion or politics but for the love of money, fame and fun.

Last seen apparently dead after a foiled plot to blow up a power station, Darcourt is back and hunting down new victims. Brookmyre’s been called the British Carl Hiaasen, and here he shows a talent for Hiaasen’s signature scene: bizarre and poetic deaths. One of the most witty and stylish serial killers in fiction, Darcourt kills a Clarkson/Littlejohn rightwing pundit by having him confess to being an asylum seeker and then stringing him up – because it’s the only language he understands. Other classic murder moments include Darcourt’s slaying of several arms dealers by having them walk across a landmine-studded floor, and he also despatches dozens of far-right activists at a neo-nazi rock venue by replacing the dry ice with poison gas.

But Darcourt’s main target is celebrity culture, particularly chart pop and reality TV singing contests. He kidnaps several young stars and imprisons them in separate airtight cells, broadcasting their ordeals via a website and adjusting air levels according to the site hits. At this point Angelique de Xavia gets involved: she’s a detective that Brookmyre fans will remember from The Sacred Art of Stealing, in which she foiled the most surreal bank robbery in history and had an affair with its instigator, a magician named Zal Innez who also has a part to play in this book.

Confused? Understandable. It’s a weakness of A Snowball in Hell that it has too much going on: the first novelist’s weakness of having too many characters and too many ideas. There’s a sense that Brookmyre is trying to cram everything in, tie up all the loose ends, and as a result this book lacks the tightness and discipline of, say, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks. It is crowded and cluttered.

No other writer nails the hypocrisy of the pundit class with such accuracy and style. But Brookmyre’s satire almost lets him down in this one, maybe because it’s been done so many times. Everyone hates celebrity culture. Even celebrities profess to hate it. The surface parodies that are always outdone by the real thing and the pontificating about what this all means for our society have been carried out by writers and artists for decades. And celebrity culture is now more about landfill indie than manufactured boy bands.

But this are minor flaws and, if we notice them, it’s only because Brookmyre has set the bar so high. I raced through this chunky hardback in two sittings. What grips you are the genuine surprises of his twists (like Zal Innez, Brookmyre is a master of misdirection); the constantly shifting sympathies and motivations of his characters; the dark hilarity of his set pieces. He is still the best crime writer – and one of the best novelists – in this country.

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