04 February 2009

More Books, More Spooks

The Servants by M. M. Smith is a rather different offering from the author's previous books as Michael Marshall and Michael Marshall Smith -- some of which I've discussed here in the past.

It has the same core premise as Only Forward and Spares (and to some extent One of Us), of a solidified subconscious realm where the protagonist's psychological issues are worked out through surreally allusive imagery. Unlike those stories, however (and even despite the fact that it's set in Brighton, like certain key scenes in Only Forward), it's a tighter, more disciplined work. It eschews the genre-bending, heavily cyberpunctuated S.F. setting of those books for a mundane, though compelling, narrative of difficult family dynamics seen through the eyes of a painfully alienated present-day eleven-year-old.

If it wasn't quite so dark, and so demanding of emotional maturity from its readers, this could even be a "Young Adult" book. As it is, it seems to have most often been described as a ghost story. It's not, or not really -- there's no sense that the titular servants (who are sometimes to be found hard at work in the otherwise empty and long-abandoned basement area of Mark's stepfather's Brighton-seafront house) are the surviving spirits of the dead. Rather, they're a function either of Mark's subconscious or of the house itself -- or, this being a work of symbolism, of both. The Servants places us firmly inside Mark's head, and forces us for much of the time to see his well-meaning though sorely tried stepfather as the monster Mark needs to believe he is. The reconciliation between them, desperately needed by Mark's sick mother, is achieved only through her son's under-stairs work experience with the eponymous nonexistent domestics.

Although I doubt more than a dozen other people on the internet have read the thing, the story reminded me of nothing so much as David "A Voyage to Arcturus" Lindsay's psychological fantasy The Haunted Woman, where a specific room in a house awakens the higher consciousnesses of otherwise mundane human beings, whose everyday selves are tragically incapable of retaining the enlightenment they receive there.

Peculiarly enough -- and I swear I'd forgotten this until this moment -- that book was also set partly in Brighton, and features a major character named Marshall.

The Servants is shorter than Smith's other books and more focussed, inspired by a humanistic (I might almost be tempted to say "christian") view of the value of vocation and of losing oneself in service to another. It's a very effective demonstration of his paradoxical versatility as a writer.

Andrew Cartmel's Prisoner novel, Miss Freedom (no Amazon link, for reasons elucidated here) is a decent enough Prisoner story, but -- for all its aspirations to be "a classic 1960s-style spy novel, in the tradition of John Le Carré, Adam Hall and Len Deighton" -- little more than that. It certainly hasn't the intellectual pyrotechnics to match Jon Blum and Rupert Booth's The Prisoner's Dilemma. Dilemma had a real sense of urgency about it, of having something important to impart which could only be told as part of a Prisoner story; by comparison Miss Freedom is... not lazy exactly, but certainly languid.

There's certainly much that's taken directly from the seventeen TV episodes -- Number 6 faces a clinically insane Number 2 (Hammer into Anvil) and a beautiful woman of ambivalent loyalties (The Chimes of Big Ben and passim), who place him in a subsidiary reality (A, B and C, Living in Harmony) where he's encouraged to tell a spy story with himself as the central character (The Girl Who Was Death), etc etc etc. Such elements as might seem newish (there's a rescue mission afoot to spring Number 6 from the Village, and the ousted Number 2 was actually on his side) are actually ringing the changes on these established elements.

Cartmel clearly knows his Prisoner, but most of his story is essentially pastiche -- well-written and perfectly competent pastiche, but unambitious. The most interesting thing, perhaps, is the way Number 6 redrafts his spy story as he's telling it, constantly revisiting earlier story elements and rewriting them. The fact that his fiction comes dangerously close to overlapping his reality might indeed suggest -- again, not exactly a new idea to the Prisoner aficionado -- that the Village itself is the product of Number 6's shellshocked fantasies.

Cartmel's biggest innovation, though, is in making his psychotic New Number 2 a sexually-motivated serial killer, which makes for some deeply uncomfortable moments. Given that a criticism frequently levelled against Cartmel's previous fiction has been his willingness to play the "violence against women" card, I might almost have found this creepy, if there hadn't been some evidence that he was attempting to address this tendency with a degree of complexity on a thematic level.

Basically, though... with this one, you're not really missing much. I feel less guilty about picking up one of the only 100 copies in existence, now.

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