(2020) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 312pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23137-5
Set in the same world as The Islanders, this is an unsettling tale of a man caught up in a crime he does not understand, and cannot believe. Todd Fremde is a writer of criminal mysteries. Invited to the island of Dearth, far across the Dream Archipelago, to talk at a conference, he finds himself caught up in a series of mysteries. How can Dearth claim to be crime-free, yet still have an armed police force? Why are they so keen for him to appear, but so dismissive when he arrives? And how does this all connect with a murder on his home island, ten years before? Fremde’s investigations will lead him to some dangerous conclusions…
We are back on Priest’s Dream Archipelago, that string of thousands of little islands, accompanying him in a more playful mood that in previous books, as we join a crime writer who travels from his home island of Salay Raba across the Dream Archipelago to talk at a conference on the distant and chilly island of Dreath. As usual things are not what they seem in the Archipelago and Todd Fremde must endure a journey into the unknown and perhaps unknowable as he is warned about the effects of “mutability” where things change constantly but perhaps without rhyme or reason.
When Fremde finally arrives in Dreath he finds that he is not as welcome as he was led to believe – is this any way to treat a guest speaker? He is regarded as an inconvenience, worse, an intruder delivering a talk about “The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime Free Society”. Dreath would appear the perfect place to deliver such a talk given the low incidence of crime on the island, but is that to do with the citizens, the policing, the reporting and prosecution of crimes? Or simply a relabelling of what actually is a crime on Dreath? Despite the oppressive nature of some of the islands they share many of the problems of institutions and people outwith the Archipelago from a financial crisis to poor internet connections. After the lecture, Fremde encounters Frejah Harsent, an ex-cop who offers him a left back to the airport – some two days away – giving the two of them ample opportunity to talk about crime fiction, but also a murder case that Harsent worked on fifteen years earlier on Fremde’s home island. Even though he has other things to do, Fremde can’t resist looking into that past crime when he gets home and finds that things are not what Harsent led him to believe and as much as he tries he can’t seem to get it out of his head and the crime writer must become a very reluctant amateur detective.
Priest is playing with the conventions of the crime novel, dismantling them and rebuilding them while giving us his own murder mystery. There are unreliable witnesses, changing circumstances, and a couple of familiar Priestian tropes as we encounter magic (through a murder victim who was a magician) and twins. There are stories within stories, and puzzles to be solved as Priest plays with the conventions of crime fiction, but attacking the subject from different angles – first from the angle of a real-life crime to be solved, but also from the angle of a crime writer, writing crime, and all the conventions he has to follow in creating fiction that like all fiction is fantasy, and divorced from the circumstances surrounding crime when it actually does happen which is so far removed from the intricate, plotting of a crime story with all its clues and suspects. While Fremde is subject to the vagaries of mutability in the real world, he is also a master of mutability in his own interior world as an author who can manipulate characters and events within his own writing. Apart from deeper concerns, Priest is clearly having fun here and we are having fun with him. Look at the titles of some of the 25 chapters which make up “The Evidence”: “The Mystery of the Two Keys”, “Strangers in a Car”, “Presumed Guilty”, “The Death Club”, “The Middle of the Hands”, “A Detective Inspector Calls”, and “Todd’s last Case”.
A totally different, but welcome addition to the tales from the Dream Archipelago, which makes the reader wonder which direction Priest is going to take when he returns to these myriad of islands. Perhaps he’ll just have to go wherever the tides of mutability take him.
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