Thoughts: Sympathy For The Devil, by Howard Marks

I deserve all of this. I brought this one on myself. Howard Marks has written memoirs and all sorts but I was just not in the mood for more non-fiction and he seemed like a bit of a dodgy character, to be honest, so I put down his first foray into crime fiction on my list, despite the, er, mediocre reviews. Let’s say it had some interesting features, but on the whole wasn’t deathless prose.

Interesting features:

  • Set in Wales, which is unusual!
  • Main character had a sort of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places backstory, which I always enjoy. That probably says terrible things about me.
  • Always up for a bit of classic pagan cult.

Not-so good things:

  • None of the characters really think or feel anything convincingly. It’s very tell-y in the narration. At one point someone is literally torn apart and eaten by crows and the heroine hopes only that death comes quickly before moving on with her life.
  • The morally ambiguous sexy bisexual, with whom the heroine naturally has a weird little tryst. Don’t worry, she gets punished for her sexy ways by losing her looks in a fire.
  • Most of the plot is an aimless ramble from place to place, with very little in the way of impetus or progress right up until the end. It’s like a badly made Flash game where you end up unlocking drawers only to find other keys to unlock other drawers in an endless chain.
  • Even at the end I didn’t really understand how the mystery had been pulled off.

Unclassifiable things:

  • The heroine is a martial arts hacker goth with a motorbike. My head knows it’s ridiculous, yet my heart loves it.
  • Having people eaten by crows as a murder method. Terrible, yes, but great.
  • The fabulously evil villain who I spent about half the book thinking was Satan himself (no, you read too much magical realism!).
  • The waifish rockstar whose performance includes actually mutilating himself onstage and no one ever really does anything about this???
  • The drugs officer love interest who turns druggie except wait he has a heart of gold except no he doesn’t but yes he does and he also does sensitive origami that the heroine can read like his mind.
  • The guy who got eaten by crows, who in the end wasn’t even the guy you thought it was. I can’t even.
  • The homegrown mystery drug that literally changes a person’s sense of reality in a way that other drugs apparently do not… and is never properly used. OR IS IT? I spent the whole final sequence wondering if it was all hallucination but it seems to all have been real? Basically, if you’re wondering whether to use a plot device like this, then don’t.

So the story’s main problem, apart from plot, prose and pacing, is that it tries to squeeze too much in. Cat’s mother’s hippy commune past, the pagans in the woods, a missing rockstar, a dead junkie cop, a serial arsonist, missing homeless kids, a mystery drug and the bloke who abducted Cat as a teenager, are all part of the same storyline. If he’d streamlined it, he could have probably written something quite tight and horror-y. If he also improved on his writing a bit.

What doesn’t help is his tendency to describe in minute detail every police procedure and every hacking foray. Part of me wanted Marks to just be happy to know that something could be done and tell us it was so. But I suppose that’s not really Marks’s fault, just one of the hallmarks of the genre. Those of us who don’t know anything about the inner workings of the police do demand the sort of realism and assurance that something can be done, and the author isn’t just pulling solutions out of their hat.

So it was messy but trashily great, and if I didn’t quite get the genius of the mystery, then at least I’ll always have the mental image of a man being devoured by crows to the emotional thought of, “She hoped death came quickly.”

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