Ellis' eccentricities are well known, showcased in Transmetropolitan especially; Crooked Little Vein is in many ways an extension of Transmet, albeit with the savvy Spider Jerusalem replaced with the rather less cool-with-it-all private detective and shit-magnet Mike McGill and his assistant/lover Trix (noticing some similarities already, I presume) navigating through present-day America at the behest of the Chief of Staff of the White House.

The plot is a simple detective story; McGill is hired by the Chief of Staff to find the "secret Constitution", a document written by the Founding Fathers that will reset America's morality and wipe out the "perversions" (and this book does have some seriously strange ideas in - some really weird sexual acts especially) that have sprung up during the 20th and 21st century.  Ellis takes us across America, a "crooked little vein" of a journey as it is referred to at one point, in the company of McGill, and we're treated to a demonstration of his miraculous powers as a shit-magnet: the strange and weird are attracted to him, so over the course Crooked Little Vein we meet serial killers, sexual perverts, prostitutes, porn-theatre runners, a pre-WikiLeaks prediction of Julian Assange, and more; the rich and powerful are at least as evil and twisted as the poor in the country, and have greater access to their strange tastes to boot, through money.  Ellis is not an optimist about human nature, it's certainly safe to say, and there doesn't appear to be anything sacred or taboo to his mind.  The plot works very well, though, driving forward with the little asides of shit-magnetism nicely included and integrated; and there is a fantastic subplot running underneath the search for the book of the growing romance between Trix and McGill.  Each is suspicious of the other, and Ellis manages to strike the right balance between having them fight and having them act as a couple; there are some sly little tricks sprinkled throughout the novel which really sell the pair as a couple.

The characters of Crooked Little Vein are also excellent.  McGill, as a private investigator, is well portrayed as a man in over his head, who has seen and heard too much and yet continues to be confused and disgusted by what happens in the world, and especially around him; he's believably squeamish, and believably scared by the original appearance in his office of the (terrifying) Chief of Staff.  There's a sense of humanity about McGill that many of the other characters, intentional caricatures, don't have, but there's also a sense of Everyman about him; we can all identify, because to some extent we are McGill, although without the skills, since unlike many PIs in fiction he is undoubtedly an excellent detective.  Trix is similarly effective; a polyamorous student studying sexual perversions and subcultures, she acts very much as a foil to McGill, fascinated where he is disgusted, naive where he is jaundiced, and experienced where he is naive.  This contrast acts very effectively in the novel as we follow the pair of them, as Ellis can show the reactions of each and let the reader find where they themselves lie on the scale, without didactically preaching to us.

Crooked Little Vein is a strange little novel, and a very eye-opening one, especially given that apparently very little of the content was invented by Ellis; the writing is punchy and pacy, the plot effective and unbelievable in an enjoyably Dan Brown kind of way (but, naturally, much better); and the characters believable, sympathetic and interesting.  I'd really recommend this.
Ian Rankin's crime novels have always been intimately concerned with Edinburgh and its environs, normally through the eyes of his most famous creation, DI Rebus. In the wake of Rebus' retirement, Rankin has created another cop, another member of Lothian and Borders - Colin Fox; but rather than a rule-bender, Fox is one of The Complaints: the men who guard the guards and keep the other cops in line.  This isn't a crime novel, or at any rate, that's only part of the point of The Complaints - that, and not to be Rebus, of course; it's other life is as a thriller, and it works beautifully as both.

The Complaints is defined equally by plot and characters, so we'll cover the latter first, to mix things up a little.  Our primary character is DI Colin Fox, one of the Lothian and Borders PSU; straight up the line, very much a man of the rule-book, Fox over the course of the novel is put through the ringer.  A little bit of a coward at the start, but good with his team, he turns into a man who has to force issues and bring himself to be brave; moving through the plot, Fox becomes a more interesting and more rounded character as he resists his impulses (as a recovering alcoholic) and has to act in ways alien to his character.  The other characters are all equally well fleshed out; they sometimes seem to be rather basic but, as the novel developes, even the simplest characters become more interesting and more rounded, their motives becoming more interesting.  This really does drive the novel well and make it readable...

The complaint about The Complaints is also its greatest strength; it doesn't pull punches.  The Complaints is a dark, grim novel, which really does take on and deal with at full force the corruption of the police, the organised crime in Scotland, and indeed the links between the two; it also doesn't avoid one of the biggest stories of its time of writing (and, for that matter, now) - the beginning of the financial crisis, as banks started to teeter and topple (ironic moments when RBS is referred to, though!).  The plot of the novel begins with Fox being asked to put another police officer under surveillance under suspicion of accessing child pornography, but the real plot is concerned with Fox's sister's boyfriend being murdered.... and Fox is under suspicion, and increasingly a target of his own tactics and team.  The whole plot is brilliantly written, and Rankin creates a complex, incredibly dark world in Edinburgh.

All in all, the crime novel-cum-thriller that is The Complaints is fantastic; Ian Rankin really has created a new character with the potential to be as popular as Rebus himself, and a dark world for him to inhabit.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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