(2018) Charles Stross, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, 354pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51108-5
Mhari Murphy has been stepping delicately through often-capricious, often-brutal matters of state under the New Management until she is tasked with the creation of an organization resembling the unfettered Laundry of decades past. The United States has, apparently, wholesale forgottenits President; furthermore, their diplomatic channels have gone eerily, threateningly dark. Not for the first time, something rotten is afoot across the pond. Mhari’s clean identity record, no past fieldwork, makes her an ideal candidate to tackle the problem—though she’s not so sure of that…
The ninth book in Stross’s Laundry Files, The Labyrinth Index, follows Mhari and a motley band of agents to America with the intention of undermining a potential coup of the entire US government by the Black Chamber—also known as the Nazgûl—under the aegis of their own ancient horror. It is grim business from start to finish, as state- and spycraft so often are in Stross’s novels.
Back in the day - and I mean way back – the (British) satirical puppet show Spitting Image ran a story called 'The President’s Brain' is missing, well with The Labyrinth Index Charlie Stross has gone one better, and all of the President is missing, or rather misplaced, forgotten about by the people he serves. Dark forces are at work in the land of the free, with the immense occult power of the Oval Office at stake, which should not fall into the wrong hands and boost their dark powers further and turn the Earth into collateral damage in a giant cosmic game. Therefore it is time for The Mandate – the dark forces which now run Britain - to intervene and send Mhari Murphy, former ex-girlfriend of Bob Howard, well kent face and character from previous Laundry novels, to America to locate and liberate the President. Mhari is now a PHANG, a Person of Hemophagic Autocombusting Nocturnal Glamour, or a vampire to you and me who has been elevated to the House of Lords with the title Baroness Karnstein. Britain is a changed place these days, executions are common, and a sizable pyramid of skulls is forming in the heart of London, no surprise when the Prime Minister is the physical incarnation of the Black Pharoah, N’yar Lat-Hotep, an ancient being with ancient powers to match.
Given the political turmoil of our times (2019) with Brexit and Trump in the White House, Stross has taken the wise move to move the action overseas, after all, this is book nine of a series, with the previous title, The Delirium Brief being a game changer and here, Mhari has to pick up the ball (and the pieces) and run with it. Given the current incumbent of the Oval Office, is Stross being satirical by positing a storyline where the President has been forgotten by his own people? I’m sure many would like to forget him and his time in office, although. it’s a hard job to out-trump, Trump. After all this country where in the recent mid-term elections, a brothel owner who had died two weeks earlier from a heart attack and whose name was still on the ballot, actually got elected. And as I write this review, our own Prime Minister, who is obsessed (maybe possessed) with getting her Brexit deal through, stands before Parliament and sounds very Dalek-like as she debates with what’s left of her voice.
Stross does not go for all out satire, but it is in there with little slashes and cuts, like the US army being less trigger-happy than their police counterparts and the encounter between Mhari and DD, who could almost be friends in another reality as they swop Leonard Cowen lines from 'First We Take Manhatten'. He’s also abandoned the spy novel pastiche writing of the past and riffing off the styles of Len Deighton and John LeCarre, but still has that spy-novel sensibility in that there are deep and dark hidden depths that Mhari could do well to avoid stumbling into, and people (and non-people) have to be sacrificed for the greater good, or in this case the lesser of two greater evils.
This is a fast-paced thrilling ride of a book, but not at the expense of characterization, particularly the female characters, which has always been one of Stross’ strong points throughout the series. Here, Mhari has an unenviable and deadly task, to her, if she gets it wrong, of messing up her mission and incurring the wrath of her Dark Master. She does not really know what she’s doing, she doesn’t really know how to lead a team, but having to learn on the job and made mistakes, might make it harder for others to second-guess what she’s going to do and might just save her life.
The Labyrinth Index builds up to a rip-roaring climax which reminds me a lot of Kim Newman and James Herbert’s novel The Spear, maybe that’s because of…no, wait, no spoilers here! Let’s just say the ultimate piece of Nazi memorabilia makes an appearance near the end. One of the rules that people often state about writing is “show, don’t tell”, or I suppose, don’t info-dump. To be honest how many writers follow that rule? Here, given the first-person narration and the bewildering circumstances the lead characters find themselves in there is plenty of info-dumping going on, but who cares? Now I know a heck of a lot more about Concorde’s supersonic capabilities than I did before. Crikey, we even get footnotes dotted throughout the book. As for the ending – the very end? Well, it was pure Bridget Jones, but it did make me smile, even grin! Well, almost.
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