Christopher Priest’s latest novel was published just in time for my recent birthday and was gladly received as a personal present. It’s a return to his near-forty-year-old habit of titles featuring the definite article, and a welcome return to the ever-fascinating environment of the Dream Archipelago: unmapped (unmappable), undefined, a protean landscape of near-infinite malleability.
Yet again, Priest has introduced a mysterious phenomenon, the effects of which will influence the life of the narrator, here being Todd Fremde, professional crime-fiction writer. This is a strange effect, prevalent only on some islands in the Archipelago, those sited upon or close to a geological rift, which is called mutability (small ‘m’).
Mutability appears to arise from gravitational anomalies. Things undergo physical changes, such as a mountain changing shape, that are impossible. Afterwards, the change reverts, and ceases to have actually happened, though anyone dying of it remains dead. In places where it is present, crime-detection is hampered because evidence is rendered completely unreliable.
You might think that you can immediately see the possibilities for crime and crime fiction but, in this respect, and in many others throughout what is, appropriately a detective fiction story, the only possibilities you can see are in your own head. This is a strange book, in which Priest holds out a series of possibilities, a string of questions at all stages, that threaten to be of significance, only for their portended significance to either vanish unexplored, or to turn out to be flat and unexciting.
Summarised simply, this is a book in which a crime fiction writer who has no respect for crime fiction finds himself unwillingly investigating a crime whose ramifications turn out to be banal and cliched, giving the impression that Christopher Priest has no respect for crime fiction, has attempted to write a crime fiction story that exposes crime fiction’s lack of validity and has instead made his own book pointless.
Let me demonstrate immediately by taking the unusual step of quoting the sleeve blurb in its entirety. Todd Fremde, an author of police procedurals and criminal thrillers, is invited to talk at a conference on the remote island of Dearth, far across the Dream Archipelago. How can Dearth claim to be completely crime-free, yet still have an armed police force? Why are they so keen for him to appear, but so dismissive when he appears? Is his sense of time confused, or is something confusing happening to happening to time itself? And how does this all connect with a murder committed on his home island, ten years before, and seemingly forgotten? Fremde’s investigation and research will lead him to some dangerous conclusions…
Now it was Samuel Johnson for once, instead of William Shakespeare, who said that ‘in lapidary inscription a man is not on oath’, nor can the same be said for book blurbs, but this is extraordinary stuff in a Christopher Priest novel. It’s so uncharacteristic that I’m tempted to wonder if this was written by Priest himself as an ironic counterpoint to what the book is really about, because there is no part of this blurb that, except in stick-figure manner, has nothing to do with the book.
But then, as Fremde and Priest constantly remind us, crime fiction has nothing remotely to do with real life, real crime, real transgression.
I can give the answers shortly; because Dearth has re-named crime as civil transgression, changing the terminology not the event; that they do has got nothing to do with anything; it’s the mutability, stupid: and because, for no reason other than to fuel the story, a semi-retired Police Commissioner fastens herself to Fremde, gives him a lift and tells him a story of a crime that bears scant relation to what actually happened.
Frejah Harsent attaches herself, seemingly casually to Fremde in the bar, and the next day offers to drive him all the way across Dearth to the airport, saving him two uncomfortable days on the train, not to mention securing him a much-needed refund that almost obliterates the losses he’s made on a mutability slip. On the way, on the apparent need that Police officers have to tell crimewriters about an interesting past case, she relates a story about a murder on another Salay island, in which it was ultimately found that the victim committed suicide by bashing himself on the back of his head with his own baseball bat. She insists on his recording her story and even ensures he gets correct spellings of the unfamiliar names.
The problem is that, when Fremde’s partner, Jo Delson, and his Police researcher, ex-Detective Inspector Spoder, look up details for him, it’s very easy to identify the case but practically every detail Harsent has given is incorrect.
For a moment, the veteran Priest reader pricks up their ears. Surely we are entering the familiar territory on Unreality, of irreconcilable versions of things that happened, equally valid. But for once we’re not. Harsent is lying. Why is she lying? Why does she want to draw this mater to Fremde’s attention only to later complain about him poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong? Valid questions. Priest doesn’t bother to provide answer to those, either.
In fact, at first it’s Spoder who is the enthusiast, opening up the field of the case to include an actual unsolved murder and insisting on Fremde accompanying him to Salay Sekonda to inspect a murder scene left untouched for ten years, even though Fremde desperately wants to get back to his latest novel. By then, Fremde has solved the ruled-suicide death of fifteen years ago that’s baffled the Police of two islands simply by noting that the victim had an identical twin brother (gee, and the Police didn’t think of that), and going off on a discursion about how the identical twin solution is dead in crime fiction as being cheap and unrealistic.
Perhaps the Unreality in this novel is the schizophrenic attitude Todd Fremde and Christopher Priest have towards crime fiction because neither of them seem to like it or think it worthwhile in any way.
The second most indefensibly mysterious thing about this story at least fits more with the background of the Dream Archipelago, Back on Dearth, the Hotel Plaza gave Fremde a cardkey for his room door, plus a second, almost identical card, not to be used except under strictly advised circumstances. Needless to say, whilst drunk he uses it, leading to the extra charges that nearly wipe him out. And he overlooks handing it in when he leaves.
Back on Salay Raba, which has pretty much overtaken Muriseay as the financial centre of the whole Archipelago. Fremde discovers he still has it. It has embedded computer chips on both sides. It’s a hotel card pass for a building on a radically different island so, as you do with such things, Fremde pops it into his computer and overrides his security to load up a completely unknown programme that takes hours to instal. As you do.
Then, when it wants to identify his social level to key it to him, Fremde decides that the truth would make it too easy to identify him personally and deflects to the Financial Sector. As you do.
I make this point because, from the moment Fremde loads up this programme, the Salay economy becomes fucked up beyond all recognition. Cashpoints stop delivering cash. Banks fail. Thousands lose their savings. Everything goes to custard. Fremde, who has been do quick to seize on the twin as the mystery murderer, does not show the same mental acuity when it comes to his mystery super-dense programme.
As the story progresses, and I refuse to go into any more detail, the shape of the criminal conspiracy (which is also outdated and unrealistic in crime fiction according to Fremde) begins to appear. There were five participants. It started with Dearth Detective Inspector Enver Jexsid, whose wife abandoned him, taking their twin sons Lew and Deever to run off with a rich man. When she died, stepdaddy abandoned the boys, leaving with them a bag containing shitloads of money to be used by them and anyone else involved. Jexsid went to Salay the fifth, taking with him, for support, his Police partner Frejah Harsent and her then-husband Hari Harsent.
A deal was done to create a tontine (tontines are also old-fashioned and unrealistic in crime fiction. Bet you hadn’t guessed that.) In its pure form, a tontine is a substantial sum of money held in trust, usually among a family to be inherited by the last survivor, though here it’s being used to create an income for the five partners.
The whole thing started when the boys got greedy and decided stepdad meant all the money for them alone. Then Lew wanted to take his share out, so Deever smashed his head in and took the money. After five years of his denying it, Hari Harsent killed him. Jexsid killed him because he’d killed both his sons. Now he’s trying to track Fremde down and kill him because somehow – don’t expect an explanation – he’s sussed out that Fremde’s cardkey has crashed the economy, including all his savings and believes he’s hacked the system to do it deliberately.
Before I move on to the ending, the only other aspect of this novel that is orthodoxically Priest is an odd focus on the social structure throughout the Archipelago. Past novels have referred in outline to seigneurial control, but there’s a greater examination of this, namely that most of the Archipelago runs on a modernised Feudal system, with a twelve-level hierarchy, ranging from serf and citizen serf (Fremde and Jo’s status as freelancers) to Seigneurial status. Frejah Harsent is very status conscious and whilst Fremde tries to avoid even thinking about it but isn’t very successful at that.
Even this aspect isn’t very enlightening. We look at the Dream Archipelago as a kind of funhouse mirror, presenting situations that don’t and can’t work in our world and examining their effect, such as the mutability. This is a social system that is a bit more complex than our own historical feudal system, even if it uses several of the same terms, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the overall story.
Which is about to come to an end.
Fremde’s already been reminded of his cardkey when an update message asks if he wants it concatenating. He has no idea what that means but it goes by the way when he’s delayed from acting and it automatically does. However, he has corrected the protocols to apply to freelance crimewriters, not the financial industry, and things start reverting to normal, a process accelerated by uninstalling.
However, this is too late to forestall the cliched climactic meeting, the library equivalent out on the patio. There’s Fremde and Spoder, and Jo inside showering after returning from her business trip, not to mention Jexsid and Frejah, both with guns they won’t put down and the inevitable happens: the frustrated and half-mad Jexsid points his gun at Fremde and he is hit in the chest.
It’s an ending he automatically rates as unworthy of and unrealistic in crime fiction, if you can stand hearing that again. But this is where mutability rears its head. Fremde wakes up two days later, in hospital, alive but with a very sore chest. What’s now happened is that Jexsid missed, because Spoder, anticipating his move, swung round and punched Fremde very hard in the chest, knocking him out of the way but causing him to fall over and hit his head.
At least I’m assuming this is the effect of mutability because Fremde doesn’t even think about it and it’s so short a space of time afterwards that under normal mutability conditions, witnesses would not have forgotten the first version, but if it isn’t mutability, what the hell is the point of introducing the concept into the book at all when the only other thing it does in switch Fremde’s hotel lights on and change the gauge of his railway train’s tracks?
No, I cannot say that The Evidence comes anywhere near in quality to any of Christopher Priest’s previous work. It is a crime fiction in a world where special conditions affect crimes and criminalities but which appear to have no effect on this story. It sets up multiple questions, it has melodramatic chapter titles emphasising mysteries about trivialities, it has an author – two, in fact – pouring only slightly alleviated scorn on crime fiction and an almost deliberately banal explanation for a murder mystery investigated with not the least motivation to do so.
In short, it is a pointless book. All I can say is that I hope Christopher Priest writes another good novel. He is a decade or so older than me and I’d hate to have to remember this as his last novel, the way I have to remember The Shepherd’s Crown when it comes to Terry Pratchett.