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Book review: <i>All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses an Eye</i> by Christopher Brookmyre

Image icon all_fun_and_games.jpg17.64 KB

the cover of the book

If this was a three-AM takeaway treat, it would be deep fried haggis. Yes they have that.


Brookmyre's entire catalogue has been visually re-worked. The new versions use the bold colours and loud, simple text of the previous designs but replace the smooth curves and single photographic elements with jagged, "cut-out" text and basic visuals which owe something to Saul Bass. I can tell you this because the inside rear cover features a spread with all the new designs. Generally they're pretty good, but All Fun And Games is one of the weaker examples - the design element is squinting eyes being jabbed by the top of an 'L', but they're so stylised I didn't realise this until three quarters of the way through. They just look like paper trimmings.


An engineer named Ross absconds from Deimos laboratories, along with details of the top-secret anti-firearm device he's perfected. When secret videos of the technology leak, arms industry honchos come out of the woodwork en masse, terrified of being made redundant at a stroke. Ross is kidnapped, put onto the black market, and dodgy 'defence' reps head to a French arms fair to bid for his head.

Meanwhile, espionage groups hired by Deimos race to retrieve Ross. At their forefront are a team headed by urbane multimillionaire Bett. By a roundabout route, Bett ends up with Ross' forty-six year old mother under his wing. Initially she's there to provide information leading to his whereabouts, but, as events transpire and the clock ticks on, she becomes an invaluable part of the rescue attempt on her son's life.

The good

Brookmyre's work conforms to action/thriller stereotypes in that it's only as good as its plot. Which is not to call him average; far from it. When he's got a head of steam and a series of solid characters hooked up to the engine, his sharp, contemporary dialogue, black humour and uniquely Scottish slant on the 'action hero' draw his pacy thrillers well ahead of the competition. His stories typically vary between grim, grounded criminal yarns starring journalist/cat burglar Jack Parlabane, and more inventive action-film-styled thrillers. The latter are the problem, because their very inventiveness leads away from the beaten path (good) but also reality (not so good), and when Brookmyre's stories flounder, they flounder BADLY. Like Tarantino (of whom he is a fan), Brookmyre's trademark devices sag into a pile without tautness of plot. Quickfire dialogue becomes self-indulgent bullshit, cultural references wander down cul-de-sacs and even the author's Scottish details start sounding twee and self-conscious. Pacing is tough, though; this is one of the reasons thrillers stick to formula.

In All Fun And Games, the plot engine kicks in at the half way mark, thrusting us into a fun action-thriller of the kind lacking from bookshelves if you discount things with military hardware on them. There are notes of the action movies Brookmyre loves, too; when our heroine (a grandmother) begins bantering with the spies interrogating her, it dawns on the reader what's about to happen, but in the finest gleefully-grip-your-armrests cinematic manner.

Brookmyre's unique style and common themes barge through all his books: distrust of authority, Scottishness, revenge of the weak (put those three together if you like), and trademark juxtapositions as we look through the eyes of an author raised in the grey reality of Glasgow but who also spent half his childhood watching Shane Black films. Like a lot of my favourite things, Brookmyre blends (usually) the right level of everyday reality with the stylised empowerment fantasies Hollywood raised us on. Two of his most successful actioners to date are One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night, which is half Die Hard, half Glaswegian high school reunion (featuring his unbeatable homage to the Air Duct Getaway), and A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, which is, if you can believe it, his literary homage to first-person shooting games, set during a terrorist attack on a Scottish dam complex. The main character's name is Gordon Freeman. He's a schoolteacher. It's awesome.

All Fun and Games works this formula very well in the second of the book's two plot threads, the story of a (young-ish) grandmother turning into James Bond. I can't fault this half of the story; it's snappy, droll, sexy, violent, and, like the movies, predictable in that wholly enjoyable way which sucks you toward the climax like a giant vacuum. If one of Brookmyre's female associates suggested the idea to him, then kudos to her, but Brookmyre has never been scared of using strong female characters. At times this can feel like he's polishing off his millennial qualifications (e.g. when using his black lesbian kung-fu policewoman), but in AFAG he really makes us want to believe it. From the first action scene wherein our heroine rescues her granddaughter mid-abduction to the climactic rescue scene, it works despite and because of it's own uniqueness. Like a good action film, there's enough verisimilitude to buckle you in, then, by the time everything goes crazy, you're looping the loop two hundred feet over plausibility concerns.

The bad

The first plot thread, which opens the novel, is an espionage thriller about a team of talented youths recruited by a superspy. The team take on their fellow agents in order to save a scientist who's developed a device which could render small arms obsolete. Sounds OK, doesn't it? Well, this ostensibly more "realistic" plotline plays, at best, as off-key background music for the main score, and, at worst, as a horribly atonal noise that threatens to render the whole thing tuneless. The first twenty pages are particularly bad, and that, as if I need to tell you, is NOT something you want to hear about a novel. Despite my familiarity with Brookmyre's style, I put the book down halfway through the opening set-piece and forgot about it for six months. The spies are all so SMUG. And CUTE. And WRY. You can get away with this better on screen, where a ballsy performance (Harrison Ford) can swing dialogue which looks laughable in print (George Lucas). Here's the news, Tarantino, Brookmyre, and every indie filmmaker in the world: You have to EARN cute.

The unwarranted, un-smart smart-arsery is bad enough alone, but the first few chapters also read as though the author's getting back into the swing of things after a hiatus, and his editor, following Tom Vaughan's Patented Ten Book Theory, has gone to the fricking pub, safe in the knowledge that the readership will begrudge his absence and read on out of habit, hope, bloody-mindedness or, as in my case, a combination of the three. "Every utterance has a descriptive tag twice it's own length," Tom snarled with a cynical twist to his stubble-crowned upper lip as he surveyed the soon-to-be finished paragraph with a cynical (insert dictionary-stumping Scottish adjective here) cynicism. "Aye," replied the reader with a knowing smirk, "And if we come out of this one alive I'll buy you a pint," finished the reader coyly, knowing full well that the glass of McFlogalots Warm Brown would forever elude Tom's slightly sweaty grasp.

Don't read this for your first Brookmyre. There's a stream of pleasure at its centre, but you have to wade through a lot of smelly muck to get there. If you like crime, read Quite Ugly One Morning or Country of the Blind, and if you like clever action movies with fantastic titles where a retired policeman gets hit on the head by a flying body part while jogging in the first ten pages, read One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night.

What I learnt

How to fire two guns at the same time. If you're going to. Apparently.

In short

Title: All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses an Eye
Author: Christopher Brookmyre
Publisher: Abacus; New edition edition
ISBN: 031672616
Pages: 414
Genre(s): Crime fiction, Thriller
Review Type: