Jack Parlabane: books 1–3

As of April this year, there are nine books in Chris Brookmyre’s series about Glaswegian investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. I read a lot of Brookmyre back in the early 2000s, so I had read the start of this series before, but then years elapsed and rather than pick up where I left off, I thought I’d start from the beginning again. It’s been a real pleasure.

Quite Ugly One Morning
by Christopher Brookmyre

Parlabane is introduced in style in this action-packed romp. Recently returned to Scotland from LA after a difference of opinion with someone powerful who wants him dead, he is laying low in Edinburgh, until suddenly he’s face to face with police. It turns out there’s a dead body in the flat directly below his, which he discovers when he has locked himself out of his own flat, half undressed. By the time he has persuaded the police that he’s an innocent bystander, his journalistic interest has been piqued and he is pulled into a complex plot involving nefarious businessmen and Tory Party shenanigans. Each of these books has a political angle and in this case Brookmyre’s target is the Tory restructure of the NHS. It sounds like a dull basis for satire, but he efficiently finds the interesting angle and digs the knife right in, mercilessly mocking Tory policy. I can’t say I mind, as a fellow liberal lefty, but I do wonder how right-wing or non-political readers would take this. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun. And I do love the character of Dr Sarah Slaughter.

“Surgeons chronically misunderstood the role of the anaesthetist. They thought he or she was there in an auxiliary, subservient capacity, to gas the patient and keep the awkward bugger quiet and still while they worked their little miracles. The anaesthetist saw his/her role instead as keeping the patient (a) alive and (b) comfortable while the surgeon did his/her best to ensure otherwise.”

Published 1996 by Little, Brown and Company.

Country of the Blind
by Christopher Brookmyre

This novel opens with a puzzle of a crime: mega-rich newspaper tycoon Roland Voss and his wife are murdered, four known criminals are caught fleeing the scene, but fledgling lawyer Nicole has proof that they aren’t guilty. Jack Parlabane is trying very hard to stay out of trouble, but then a good friend of his shows up on TV talking to the press about the Voss case and he is unavoidably sucked in. The supporting cast, including the four criminals, are all fascinating – often funny, sometimes touching. This time Brookmyre’s target is the not-so-secret relationship between the Tory Party and the press, especially the tabloids. It all feels scarily relevant still, for a book published 20 years ago, and I can only hope we are similarly on the cusp of the end of a period of Tory rule.

Looking back at my review from the first time I read this, I think I appreciated it more the second time around. Interesting.

“Mass unemployment wasn’t a government failure, it was a government strategy…It was the weapon they used to break unions, force down wages, dictate conditions. But it was more sophisticated than that…they had been out to break their spirit. To do is to be; the Tories took away what they did. They took away what they were…and left them not just without means, but without purpose. And a man without purpose offers little resistance as a foe. He has nothing to fight for.”

Published 1997 by Little, Brown and Company.

Boiling a Frog
by Christopher Brookmyre

A few years have passed and both politics and Parlabane’s life have changed. A lot. The Tories have been replaced by New Labour, Scotland has gained its own parliament and Parlabane is in prison for breaking into the headquarters of the Catholic Church of Scotland. This novel is a little more serious in tone than the previous two. You can feel the disappointment that a Labour government hasn’t corrected all of society’s ills, and the satire is aimed more widely, at everyone and everything. This book is also different structurally, as the bulk of the story is told in flashback, filling in how Parlabane came to suspect the Catholic Church of hiding something worth breaking into their headquarters for. It’s less gripping than its predecessors, but still a great story, and possibly a more grown-up one. Like the Labour Party, Parlabane is facing up to reality – he has no-one to blame but himself for the mess he’s in, and yet there is a conspiracy to be uncovered.

“Being a life member of the Scottish press’s Awkward Squad, Contrary Bastard Division (Unreconstructed Wanker Class One), [Jack] willingly assumed the Canute role. ‘Religion,’ he wrote, ‘might yet turn out to be a virus sent by some malevolent alien civilisation with an extremely busy colonisation programme. They know they’re not going to get around to invading your planet for a few thousand years, so in the meantime they introduce religion, to slow down your evolution in order that you’ll still be weak and primitive when they finally turn up in the mothership.’”

Published 2000 by Little, Brown and Company.