The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross
In approaching this book, I’m reminded of decades of musical interventions where jazz and other musicians have taken pieces of classical music or well-known tunes, and variously mangled them, depending on your point of view. Indeed, the Classical Jazz Quartet is currently mining the same field ploughed by the Swingle Singers forty-something years ago, while people like Yngwie Malmsteen write their own orchestral concertos for electric guitar. Similarly, the idea of riffing on old literary favourites is captured in the increasingly contentious practice where “mashup” meets plagiarism. This year, you only have to think Helene Hegemann (as, of course, you all do) or Kaavya Viswanathan, who has just begun work with Sullivan & Cromwell, a top firm of attorneys — kinda ironic, huh!?! — to see the problem emerge into the full glare of the light. With the internet now making it possible to lay your hands on a wealth of content, it’s very difficult not to give into the temptation of an odd phrase here and there.
Now this is not to say there’s even the slightest hint of plagiarism about The Fuller Memorandum (apart from mentioning the phrase “here be dragons” twice which is the title of one of Anthony Price’s books). Indeed, for all its advertised homage to Anthony Price, I’m able to report there’s almost nothing even remotely like a David Audley book on display.
At this point, I admit to a prejudice. I used to be a collector and was the proud possessor of a complete set of Price first editions. He was a quite remarkable author. One who does not deserve to have been lost in the mists of time. The beauty of the books is the blend of history and two puzzles to be solved. There’s always a historical mystery, beautifully researched, and the solution of that mystery leads to the resolution of the contemporary mystery and the unmasking of the criminal, spy or terrorist. As a historian, the “hero” Audley thinks his way through both puzzles and, with the help of more active helpers, catches the bad guys. For anyone who wants an intellectual but exciting adventure story, you can’t do better than Price, particularly the early books. As he got older, there was a slightly wooden quality to the writing. But there are some great books to savour.
So Charles Stross, having been inspired by Len Deighton and Ian Fleming in the first two Laundry books, now claims Price. You need not worry. This is the same as Hollywood asserting a film is based on a true story, i.e. the filmmakers dramatise reality and so turn it into something different. This is the usual Stross first-person narrative where the now familiar Bob Howard struggles his way through the morass of problems until he emerges battered but victorious (and, according to Stross in June, he’s pitching another outing). First, the good news. This is way better than the second in the series, The Jennifer Morgue, which kept the Bond theme going far too long. The Fuller Memorandum succeeds in no small part because, although there are the texts of some historical documents included, Stross is not interested in copying the style or tropes of his inspirational source. Whereas even the living dead have either read a Bond book or seen one of the films, I’m probably one of a dying breed who could give you chapter and verse on Audley. Without Price fans to appease by including this favourite element or that, Stross could be unconstrained and just write a good Lovecraftian romp.
It has been interesting to watch Bob Howard’s development from The Atrocity Archives onwards. He’s losing his naive geekiness and becoming increasingly competent. In this outing, from the moment he misjudges the extent of the problem in RAF Cosford and inadvertently kills someone who proved to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to the end where there are rather too many dead around for it to matter any more, we can see a man growing more comfortable in his ability to take on the dark forces and win.
And all is told with considerable wit. I can hear Stross cackling as, like one of these slightly manic entertainers who bend balloons into funny shapes, he takes ordinary sentences and wraps them round each other to make the entrails of something diabolically amusing — or which might represent a human sacrifice and so admit a power from beyond. Although there are moments where there’s an odd repetitiveness about the writing, it’s high pulp and not ashamed of it. This is not a book you sit down to read as brain food. It’s not intended to be anything other than great fun. In this it succeeds admirably and represents the best book Stross has published since Halting State. That our first-person hero can assert what others are doing at the same time in different parts of London just adds to the madcap feel of the whole thing. So once we have done our stretching exercises, it ambles along happily for the first half and then runs frantically to get to the end. There are no real mysteries in the Price style to solve except to wonder how Stross manages to stay so amusing so long.
Definitely recommended for those who like Lovecraftian fiction with a subversive attitude.
This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.