The Detainee by Peter Liney
It’s always good to begin with an irreverent thought — it gets such ideas out of your system before starting on the serious business of writing the review. Anyway, back in 1965, I remember paying to see The Bed-Sitting Room, a hilariously absurd play about a man who, as a result of exposure to radiation during World War III, turned into a bed-sitting room. He was then occupied by the doctor treating him. This bodily invasion was justified by the doctor’s thought it was easier to treat his patient when he had somewhere comfortable to sit. This made a more amusing play than Becket’s Happy Days which has one character buried in a mound of earth. But the theme of both plays revolves around people who survive after a catastrophe of some kind. Back in the sixties, we were all somewhat obsessed by the different ways in which we might be terminated (apologies to daleks) in a nuclear holocaust. Today, we get to think about different types of apocalypse.
The Detainee by Peter Liney (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) has a financial meltdown which leads to a somewhat clichéd dystopia in which all the scroungers and useless people are sent to camps (in this case on an island) where they are expected to die. I didn’t have a problem with the logic of the trigger for this process of social winnowing, but I did wonder how it was managed in the cities. Equally, I wondered how the people arrived on this island. Do boats come across from the city on a regular schedule with people unloaded by goons with cattle prods? There doesn’t seem to be any system for meeting and greeting newcomers — old worthless people this way, Lord of the Flies wannabes follow me, collect your machetes after health screening for organ donation (it is an island after all and Logan’s Run rules apply).
And I wasn’t entirely clear how the old people survived. There doesn’t seem to be any routine of foraging in the rubbish dump for food, clothing or any other essentials. And how do they cook whatever food they find? No electricity, no running water, no obvious way in which to make fire assuming safely combustible material could be found. Or are we just to assume there’s enough in the garbage for them to snack on whenever the mood takes them? And then what happens during winter? The attrition rate must be phenomenal without having all the killer kids rampaging whenever the mists come down. Which makes it all the more surprising there’s no apparent system for collecting more victims from the disembarkation point and settling them into their lean-to hovels before execution or death through starvation. In other words, I couldn’t work out how the island was supposed to function as a place to live. The only explanation for the older arrivals was as a place to die quickly, the young more slowly (although whether anyone would want their organs if they were malnourished and addicted to drugs is not considered). These problems always arise with first-person narration because if our protagonist doesn’t see or think about the relevant information, we readers remain in the dark.
Our first-person narrator is sixty-three-year old “Big Guy” Clancy. Before the crash, he was muscle for a gangster. Think of him as the strong, silent type who would loom over people and intimidate them into doing what was required. He’s not overly endowed in the brain department, but equally not stupid. Physically, he’s in decline as you would expect of a man of his age who doesn’t work out. Even though he’s still physically impressive when compared to most of the other old folk, he’s disinclined to get involved when the killers come. He waits patiently for death, seeing no reason to shorten his life by attempting to defend those attacked. This leaves him somewhat disliked with only Jimmy and Delilah prepared to see any good in him. Then one day he has the good fortune to be saved from attack by an unexpected person. Over time, this leads to his rehabilitation as a person. We then go through the obligatory stage to recruit allies (there do prove to be quite a lot prepared to fight against the established order) and it’s into the climactic battle to end book one in this trilogy.
Now you might think because I’ve been finding fault with some aspects of the book that it’s unenjoyable. This is not the case. Some aspects of the plot are quite rigorously worked out and although the precise mechanism for the ending depends on one of these coincidences and is slightly deus ex machina, the whole is a fascinating preface to what I take to be the real story which begins in book 2 (or at least I hope it starts in book 2). Whereas what happens on the island is fairly well-trodden ground, what’s happening in the city could be the salvation of the trilogy when the books are read together. I’m actually interested to see what happens next.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.