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The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams

The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit, 2012) is a particularly good example of the Hollywood mystery with no real science fiction element. At best, it’s a near-future thriller in that some of the computer capabilities are just on the cusp of realisation. Or, perhaps, governments have already cracked this and not yet told us officially — it’s hard to say. Not unnaturally, the lead in this type of book must be played by an actor who finds him or herself pitched unceremoniously into the middle of a murder investigation and, whether out of mere curiosity or a fear that he or she might be the next victim, our hero(ine) sets out to discover whodunnit. On the way, we should get pleasing insights into the way Hollywood is supposed to work and, if we’re lucky, lots of good jokes. One of the best examples of a niche variation is the series character Marty Burns, penned by Jay Russell. This introduces a former child-star who has fallen on hard times and suddenly sees options for possible redemption. In this most recent book, Walter Jon Williams introduces Sean Makin, who hasn’t quite fallen through the profession and out through the crapper, but Celebrity Pitfighter is probably as low as you can get without having to resort to porn — the final resting place of all failed child-actors. In terms of style, this is also a throwback. More recently Mr Williams has been giving us rather more serious books. When he was younger, the Drake Maistral series applied a nice comedic touch to science fiction tropes. This does rather the same to the Dagmar Shaw series.

Yes, this is the third novel in a series except, unlike the first two, This Is Not a Game and Deep State, the narrative has been inverted. The earlier novels tell the stories with Dagmar Shaw as the primary point of view. This book adopts an innocent actor who’s recruited into one of her big idea plots and tells it from his point of view. To that extent, Dagmar only has speaking or walk-on status in the early stages as our hero takes time to work his way up the hierarchy so he can talk to her directly. To that extent, using the concept of The Fourth Wall as the title signals the author’s intention to shift the reader’s view of the action to a different window. It’s a Dagmar Shaw plot but deconstructed and reconstructed to give us the challenge of trying to guess exactly what she’s being paid to do this time.

Walter Jon Williams showing off the latest in grafting technology

The result is immense fun. We go through Sean Makin’s backstory and endure his humiliation in the cage. Then we have his crass agent almost torpedo his chance to impress Dagmar and the slow introduction of all the key players as the audition is safely navigated and the shooting begins. Naturally, the director has been using his influence to bring a lot of old friends back together again. It’s a chance for old memories to surface, not all of them welcome. Everything seems to be going well except someone in an SUV may be trying to run Sean down. Who can be sure in these days of falling driving standards. Anyway, the death of the person doing the wardrobe can’t be denied and this forces our hero’s thought processes into a higher gear. When someone else dies, it’s clear he may be a target and, in self-defence, he begins more seriously to try working out who might have a motive. As if this is not bad enough, he seems to be making progress through the rounds of pit fighting. Since a crazed killer may come at him at any moment, the fact he’s been receiving training in martial arts is a lucky break even if he does have to fight in cream cheese.

Interestingly, he’s starring in a film to be released in episodes like the old serials except, in this modern version, each individual pays to view a download or stream, and can vote on how the story is to develop. It’s somewhat like the idea underlying Clue (1985) in the cinema, It Could Be Any One Of Us by Alan Ayckbourn in the theatre, and many Dungeons and Dragons plots with multiple tracks through the narrative, which may or may not all arrive at the same ending or at multiple endings. The model adopted by Walter Jon Williams is the kinoautomat which was designed to have the film stop after a key scene and the audience vote how the film should proceed. In these days of interactivity it’s a nice idea and also somewhat subversive in that the revenue from all those watching the serial online goes directly to the producers and not through the owners of cinema chains. Cutting out the middleman is very big business when tens of millions may be viewing around the world.

Put all this together and you easily have the most enjoyable novel from Walter Jon Williams in years. This is not taking anything away from his more serious work. It’s just such a refreshing change to have something lightweight and frothy from our man. The Fourth Wall is unhesitatingly recommended as a humorous Hollywood mystery.

For reviews of other books by Walter Jon Williams, see Deep State, The Green Leopard Plague and This Is Not A Game.

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