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Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø

April 21, 2014 4 comments

Cockroaches-The-Second-Inspector-Harry-Hole-Novel-V-376003-5d4eb82dbd9467d7f1b0

Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) sees a publisher finally translating and releasing one of the early Harry Hole novels. For the record, this is the second in the series but the last to be translated into English. It follows on from his exploits in Australia. For those of you new to the series, he’s the detective with a brain who has looked into the abyss. Needless to say, neither side of this exchange of view was enamored, so Harry has decided to seek oblivion through alcohol. This does not, of course, lead to his dismissal from the police force. Those that matter in the hierarchy understand the circumstances and, from time to time, there’s a need for a man like this. In this instance, the need arises in Bangkok (a city providing all the temptations likely to attract the addicted and the dangerous). The Norwegian ambassador to Thailand has been found with a knife in his back in a brothel. This could be deeply embarrassing to the ruling party in Norway so a cover-up is in order. A little research suggests Harry may not emerge from the bottle long enough to do any lasting damage. The local Thai authorities are also keen to minimise the media interest. It might damage their tourism trade if it were to be suggested a knife-wielding killer was lurking in a brothel, massage parlour or one of the many other venues where sexual gratification for money may be obtained.

To help ensure the investigation is less than successful, the Thai authorities designate a woman and a farang to liaise. She’s the daughter of an American officer and a local woman who has returned to Thailand. It’s not the gender itself that’s likely to be a problem. Local Thais tend not to be impressed by foreigners. So even though she speaks the language like a native, the lines of communication are not going to work so well. The only thing going in her favour from Harry’s point of view is that she’s not as corrupt as the majority of the local police force — it’s an economic problem with the government not paying those employed to enforce the law enough to live on. So most take money not to enforce the law.

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo

As murders go, this looks reasonably straightforward: man found dead in brothel by the prostitute sent to service him. While not an everyday crime, there’s always a dangerous edge to using the services of the sex industry. Prostitutes or their pimps roll clients for their passports, credit cards and cash. Muggers and robbers steal whatever’s left. Mostly the clients live to tell the tale. Sometimes they fight back when they should know better and pay the price. Yet this is an ambassador. More to the point, he’s independently wealthy so need never go this low down in the market. Although perhaps that’s the point. Maybe a part of the excitement comes from entering the demimonde. Except there are some photographs in his briefcase (what man takes his briefcase with him when he goes to a brothel?). They show a paedophile with a boy. The photographer was using a long lens and did not capture the man’s face. So perhaps the ambassador was meeting someone to blackmail. But if the motive was blackmail, why didn’t the killer take the photographs? Even on the initial survey, there are some unusual factors. Once the investigation goes through the standard moves, the unanswered questions multiply. This should lead to the whitewash both government want. With no obvious way to answer all these questions, the case should be closed and Harry should go home.

But Harry never has been one for following orders and, as he dries out in the heat of Bangkok, he begins to understand the force of the old joke, “When a cockroach dies, one-hundred turn up at the funeral.” In this case, Harry’s crude hacking at the walls of silence around him, encourages a number of creatures to crawl out into the daylight. The only two problems are which might be the killer(s) he’s looking for and can he avoid being killed by those that resent being disturbed? It proves to be a highly detailed plot with a very nicely arranged diversionary tactic in play. Unfortunately, we also get the traditionally seamy view of Thailand as a tourist destination. Although most of the information is necessarily subordinated to the need to keep the plot going, it’s a clichéd overview with few pleasing touches of local colour to bring the setting to life. That the corruption also extends back to Norway should not surprise us. The politics swirling around this murder endangers reputations in both countries. Naturally, once he’s sobered up, Harry is just the man you need to get to the truth of the matter. What then happens is predictable as the news is massaged. Ironically, for all Harry produces a clear-cut ending, the cover-up more or less stays in place. Life goes on and Harry can resume his search for oblivion.

Since I enjoy reading clever books with a darker edge, Cockroaches appeals to me. There’s a rather satisfying coldblooded quality to the planning and execution of the crimes on display. It doesn’t matter how realistic the events may be. The intellectual rigour of the plot makes the book worth reading. From the little I’ve said, you’ll understand the themes explored are not for the faint-hearted. But, for the most part, the book is not explicit. It should not offend while asking pertinent questions about the weaknesses some humans have.

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
The Bat
Police
The Son.
There’s also a film version of Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Almost Human: Season 1, episode 2. Skin (2013)

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Almost-Human2

So catching up the pilot show with a recap, it seems the criminals were winning so, to even up the battle, the government of the day invested billions in creating androids to stand alongside the weak soft creatures and, when the machines could be bothered, carry the dead bodies home every time the criminals won. This seems an illogical use of taxpayers’ money. For rather less money, it would have been possible to pay for more human officers to man the barricades. Having these androids which can just be switched off if anyone broadcasts a radio signal at the right frequency seems less than sensible. And the first model, the ones with the synthetic soul — well they weren’t called the crazy ones for nothing. Putting this together doesn’t seem to create a very credible future society. Frankly, as technology goes, I prefer the idea of cloning or, if you want a more esoteric idea, the Kiln People by David Brin gives you clay duplicates called “dittos”. Staying on more conventional territory, we avoid all the problems of programming machines to become effective police officers by creating cyborgs, augmenting human biology with mechanical body parts.

Manufacturing womandroids for prostitution is not very original — the slang of this culture dubs them bangbots. I prefer the darker child androids for paedophiles in the Wonderland novels by Michael Shean (see Shadow of a Dead Star). Indeed, ever since AI populated Rouge City with empty sex machines like Gigolo Joe, I’ve been sceptical of the economics and the psychology that would enable humans to find machines sexually attractive. The sample on display at the start of Almost Human: Season 1, episode 2. Skin (2013) seems incredibly human including being remarkably dim — it takes guardian humans to come in, shoot the copyright thief and take their investment property away before it can be copied. This failure to program her to protect herself from investigation by bankrupt scientists, is just one of several appallingly sexist moments in this episode. Since these females are based on the same DRN platform as our heroic android, it would have been possible to make them as intelligent as him. Yet they are stereotypically sex objects for men to lust after while all they do is pander to male fantasies.

The killers use a DNA bomb to contaminate the scene — that’s a nice idea — so much more neat and tidy than actually blowing the room up. And the two guardian humans wear spray-on masks that prevent their faces from being seen by surveillance cameras (remember there’s a paywall on the NYT, but the article “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma” discussing incompetence starts with a man who thought lemon juice would have the same effect). Sorry, I was getting ahead of myself again. The sex machine at the beginning of the episode is leaving human DNA behind from a human woman who was abducted — you would think these stereotypical Albanians would watch her like a hawk and clean down any surfaces she was seen to touch. Anyway, it’s apparently illegal to have androids with human DNA. And then there’s another woman abducted, this time leaving a boy behind as a convenient witness.

Michael Ealy and Karl Urban driving (or not)

Michael Ealy and Karl Urban driving (or not)

We then tune into Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) and note our human hero’s potential dislike of kids and cats. Incongruously, we discover his testicles are also backed-up. I take this to mean his lack of mutual sexual activity is leaving him frustrated, but who knows what Dorian (Michael Ealy), our synthetic with a soul, sees when he uses his radar and other high-tech wizardry to remotely interface with his human partner’s balls. The thing I’m finding slightly puzzling is how this car is being driven. It doesn’t seem to be autonomous which is surprising given the sophistication of AI technology in the androids, yet our hero is not spending as much time as feels safe looking out the front windscreen. Obviously this allows him to have meaningful conversations with his partner (which are actually quite engaging), but the whole experience of the driving feels slightly wrong.

So where are we with this episode? It’s playing quite a sophisticated game with notions of trafficking, problems of identity and the nature of mortality. Human women are being abducted so that their skin and other relevant glands can be transferred to a production line of machines. Obviously, in the medium term, this kills the human woman but, since she cannot be endlessly programmed and reprogrammed, she’s too much trouble for our pimps to manage (unless sadistic men are prepared to pay a premium price for raping human women). Creating the ultimate machine with the look and feel of a real woman in all the right places is a great long-term business model. Except, for reasons taken to be so obvious they need no rehearsal in this culture, laws make it illegal to have machines with human DNA.

This strikes me as distinctly odd. The fact the skin is human (assuming it can be kept alive while grafted onto a machine) doesn’t change the nature of the machine. It’s just like a different set of clothes for the android to wear. Indeed, the only reason for this law seems to be so that the script can “kill” off the rescued machine, while patting the rescued human woman on the head and sending her home with her son. This gives our android the chance to offer hope to the nos morituri te salutamus machine. Yes, there really is an android Heaven and I’ll see you when I get there. I wondered whether Michael Ealy would smoke a last cigarette before powering down the bangbot. Where is his emoticon chip when he needs it? Surely he should be “feeling” something when the humans execute one of his kind for no obvious reason? Could he not leak a little machine oil from his soulful eyes? Meanwhile our human drives himself to the home of his ex-partner so he can be more human and tell the son of that family all about the father he lost. It’s sad that science fiction shows on US television feel they have to engage in sentimentality. Having played with the idea of our hero being sexually excited by bangbots while also feeling attracted to Detective Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly), the human woman working in his unit, it would have been enough to leave him allergic to kids. Having him turn into someone “nice” may win him prizes with the female demographic watching the show, but doesn’t feel very credible. This leaves me still feeling indecisive. Almost Human: Skin has a good relationship between Karl Urban and Michael Ealy at its heart, but the stories are not yet very coherent.

For a review of another episode, see
Almost Human. Season 1, episode 1 (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 3. Are You Receiving? (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 4. The Bends (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 5. Blood Brothers (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 6. Arrhythmia (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 7. Simon Says (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 8. You Are Here (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 9. Unbound (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 10. Perception (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 11. Disrupt (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 12. Beholder (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 13. Straw Man (2014).

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