Book Review: A Snowball In Hell By Christopher Brookmyre
It used to be in order to be famous you had to have done something important or have an ability that distinguished you from other people. Artists, scientists, thinkers, explorers, inventors, and military leaders were all likely candidates for fame as they were all in careers that provided opportunities for renown. Any celebrity or fame that came their way was earned because of their talents or skill. Now, things have changed, and celebrity has become a goal on to itself with people willing to do almost anything to get their moment in spotlight.
These are the people so many of us love to hate, especially those who appreciate the work that goes into actually creating something of intrinsic value. It's enough to make you pretty hot under the collar seeing talentless wasters with column space in newspapers and having their faces splashed all over the popular magazine. Wouldn't the world be a better place without these air-heads, or the people who created the opportunities for their creation in the first place?
Well, in Christopher Brookmyre's most recent book, A Snowball In Hell, available through Penguin Canada, former terrorist for hire Simon Darcourt has decided enough is enough and its time to give the public what they really want, reality television with celebrity guests competing against each other for the public's approval just like they do on Big Brother and Survivor. However, getting voted off Simon's show doesn't just mean you won't come back next week, you won't be coming back at all, except for in a box.
You can't help but be struck by how intelligent his arguments, and compelling his justifications, are for the things he's doing. Sure he's a bit extreme but you do have some sympathy for what he's doing, don't you? However, after abducting a prominent producer, one Nick Foster, boy band producer from the 1980's and 90's, and a reality show creator in the present day, and broadcasting his execution live to those attending an industry tribute to the same Nick Foster, the police don't quite agree with this assessment. They even agree less when it's become apparent that he has created a new reality show for the public to watch by kidnapping the winners of Nick's last venture.
Of course he's not going to kill them off one by one - he's going to have the audience vote on how much oxygen each girl gets in a day based on her performance until one runs out of air time - so to speak. Oh, and to make sure everybody broadcasts his little extravaganza he lets it be known that he will kill all three of the girls immediately if the broadcast is shut down or any attempt is made to trace the server it's being beamed from. So the cops call in the one person who handed Darcourt his ass before, Detective Inspector Angelique de Xavia, who thwarted Simon's plan to blow up a hydroelectric installation in Scotland back in 2001. The biggest problem they face this time though is figuring out what the former mercenary wants.
As if things aren't complicated enough, it turns out the police aren't the only ones not amused by Simon's telecasts, as Angelique finds out when she receives a text message from an interested party wanting Darcourt delivered to them instead of being hauled off to prison. As incentive they send a photo along with the message - her parents handcuffed to chairs.
If she ever wants to see her parents alive again she's going to not only have to track down Darcourt, but make him disappear in plain view of her superiors and the public. It's a good thing she knows a magician, Zal Innez, who five years ago not only made off with a whole lot of money from a Glasgow bank, screwed over two mob families, but had stolen her heart. Although the feelings are mutual, he's as equally besotted with her, they both believe they are doing the other a favour by not being in each other's lives - what kind of future can a thief and a cop have together? Yet without Innez Angelique knows she's not a hope in hell of saving her parents, let along snaring Darcourt.
Christopher Brookmyre's skill resides in not only writing plots which have more switch-backs than a road twisting up the side of a mountain, but in making those same plots believable. With parts of the book being written in Darcourt's voice, we see him assembling all the pieces for what we think is the penultimate game and are chilled by the delight he takes in revelling in other people's weaknesses. He is, unfortunately, as brilliant as he thinks he is, and we can only sit back helplessly as he lets us in on his secrets or as he invites us to laugh along with him at his perverse form of social critique.
What's even more amazing is that Brookmyre is able to use this highly amoral character to brilliantly satirize our obsession with celebrity and fame. Day after day the press publish tallies on which of the three original contestants are attracting the most attention in the press, and thus earning the right to breath. Night after night the public gather around their computers and televisions to watch the performances as the three girls compete for the approval they so desperately need to stay alive. It's reality television taken to its most nightmarishly logical conclusion with the only real winner being the one behind the scenes pulling all of our strings.
A Snowball In Hell is a brilliant and devastating book that proves once again that Christopher Brookmyre is one of the best social critics going as well as being one of the most original crime fiction writers you'll ever read. There are no cows sacred enough not to be slaughtered by his pen, over inflated egos safe from the prick of his words, or moralistic hypocrites who can escape his wrath. Yet at the same time he ensures that we never forget, in contrast to Simon Darcourt's opinion, that even the "contestants" in the reality show from hell are living and breathing people who are just looking for something to fill the void in their lives.
It's a sad and confused world that we live in if people feel they have to prove their worth by becoming famous. Who are we to begrudge them their moment of glory, no matter how contrived or silly it might appear in our eyes? While aiming a slap at the industry that creates these opportunities, Brookmyre hits those who sit in judgement on the participants with a shot between the eyes: How are you any different from Simon Darcourt except for perhaps how you express your opinion of these people?