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Book review: <i>Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks</i> by Christopher Brookmyre

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the cover of the book

If this was a cartoon, it would be South Park's John Edwards episode.


A decent piece of typographic design, using flat, 'cut-out' shapes and text, plus a yellow-on-blue colour scheme I have a weakness for.

The story

Gabriel LaFayette, celebrity psychic extraordinaire, lands in the UK with a splash. With the backing of a respectable journalist and a Northern millionaire, he sets out to prove there's more in heaven and earth than etcetera etcetera. His plan to do this involves establishing a legitimate chair of Paranormal studies at a prestigious University. Also currently retained by said university are Jack Parlabane, journalist, ex-cat-burglar, now University rector, and his partner Jane, a surgeon.

Having gotten his first wish, Gabriel now wants to prove the legitimacy of his initial positive findings. Sceptics across the UK look to Parlabane, who finds himself in another new role as LaFayette's department's token sceptic, shifty-artist, and all-round official scam detector.

The good

As mentioned in my last Brookmyre review, his novels tend to follow an Action-Crime-Action-Crime cycle. This time his journalist/crim Jack Parlabane's is back, to ferret out another nasty piece of work and put the shame on. The theme here is supernatural belief (including, to an extent, Brookmyre's favourite punch-bag, organised religion) versus fact. It's something the author (via primary narrator Parlabane) can really get his teeth into, and when Brookmyre's on-topic his momentum is difficult to resist.

What makes this book work is its plot, (Minor Spoiler Alert...) beginning with the second-chapter revelation that Parlabane is narrating his parts of the story from the afterlife by virtue of being, in fact, dead. For the first half of the novel, Brookmyre ingeniously blends mystery with facts, apparent facts, and Mr. Rumsfeld's "known unknowns". To put it less crappily, he taunts us in the same way that LaFayette and his journalistic accomplice taunt the British public – with apparently incontrovertible evidence of supernatural phenomena (or, to use a student dissenter's term, "woo") difficult to brush aside, even by cynics like myself. In short, like our frustrated hero, we're pretty sure LaFayette is a fraud, but we're buggered if we can figure out how he's getting away with it. (Also, if you're anything like me, there's still a bit of your brain hoping, for reasons known only to itself, that he's the real thing. Brookmyre is aware of this, too, and quite happy to call us on it.)

Parlabane and Sarah are Brookmyre's strongest and most enduring characters, and the reason for that is that they best reflect the forthright thematic worldview of the author's work. Here, the plot requires a few extra cynics to enter their corner, and these characters (a nerdy student and his mother, a non-believing medium) make strong additions to the cast. LaFayette, too, is every bit as charmingly disarming and disingenuous as one would hope, and there's the unmistakeable ring of truth about the hook- swallowing prose of the lady journalist who promotes his agenda (and narrates a few chapters).

It's bloody difficult not to get drawn into this, at least if you wait for the second chapter to take shape, and Brookmyre's plotting and pacing, the backbone of the thriller, grow more ambitious with every book.

The bad

The first chapter could be stronger. There's nothing wrong with the idea of starting a book about paranormal trickery with a freakish supernatural event, but if you're going to do that, you might want to create one which is a little harder to imagine how to fake. I would concede the possibility that this was the author's point, except that wouldn't gel with the genuinely flummoxing mystery at the book's core. I think Brookmyre WAS trying to freak us out, and the silly thing is, the second chapter accomplishes this instantly, by giving us a main character who is A- a lifetime supernatural cynic, and B- a ghost. It's not a terrible beginning, it's just underwhelmingly melodramatic.

Sad to say, also, but I found the resolved mystery at the end much less exciting than I'd hoped. Even discounting the possibility of an element of genuine ghostly mystery, parts of the plot were just too pat. In an earlier book, Brookmyre has characters discuss what he calls "B.D.Q", or "Bullet Deadliness Quotient". This is the scale on which any film featuring firearms will establish itself (sooner rather than later, if Sylvester Stallone is involved), indicating how seriously the threat of a character being shot is. As Brookmyre points out, for all the talk of Tarantino's casually graphic violence, his BDQ is actually quite high - when people are shot at, they usually get hit, and when they get hit, they usually bleed a lot, scream, and die. As portrayed in Last Action Hero, however, to the eighties action star, gusts of machine gun fire can easily be avoided by running in the opposite direction. ANYWAY. Brookmyre's books typically aim for the higher end of the BDQ, and his crime novels the very highest - death is every bit as sober and unexpected an occurrence as in reality. In Rubber Ducks, though, there are moments where it's a little bit too easy and lacking in impact, and the immediate suspicion on the reader's part is that this is due to plotting shortcuts. Brookmyre's proven he can do without these, so it's a pity he used them here, particularly after contriving an intriguing plot which shouldn't want for a bunch of corpses to ensure its place on the Crime shelf.

What do you think of the title? It refers to famed sceptic James Rudi's definition of supernatural practitioners as 'unsinkable rubber ducks,' which no amount of proof can submerge. It's not much of an issue, really, but I used to enjoy his hinky book names - "One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night," and "A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away," are my favourites - they're long, but they dance off the tongue compared to "Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks" or "All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye".

If the subject matter sounds interesting, you should give this a go. I wouldn't go into it thinking "crime", however - it's just a satisfyingly cynical contemporary urban yarn, really.

What I learned

A few techniques of "psychics" through the ages. You can see them STILL fooling people on TV's The One. Geoff? Is there a Geoff that means anything to anyone here, in this large crowd? Barry? It starts with B...Bertha? Brian? Badger? Does anyone own a badger?

In short

Title: Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks
Author: Christopher Brookmyre
Publisher: Hachette Digital
ISBN: 0349118817
Year published: 2011 (kindle edition reprint)
Pages: 415
Genre(s): Crime Fiction
Review Type: