Jarv’s Favourite Books: Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre
The mid 1990’s were a funny time in Britain. On one hand, Britpop was still running strong, Trainspotting and the Full Monty showed that we did actually have a film industry, the country was in economic good health, and, really, everything seemed to be pretty rosy. However, on the other hand, things were not as great as they appeared to be. Maybe it was because I was young and naive, but it struck me that if the country was really in as great shape as it seemed to be, then why were the papers full of corruption, incompetence and loathsome behaviour from our ruling classes? Whether it was Aitken or Archer going down for perjury, or Hamilton taking cash-for-questions, it didn’t matter as the lasting impression I have of the time was that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was a country run by asset-stripping bondage fetishists who would sell their mother to the glue factory for a couple of quid. At the time this sense of je ne sais quoi that permeated through the nation really did leave an uncomfortable feeling and if I had to put my finger on the feeling it’s that we were pig fucking sick of the Tory bastards, Thatcherism and the rest of it and we felt confident enough to try to rebuild the country. We were wrong, in hindsight (fuck you New Labour), but there was a fragile optimism coupled with a belligerent sense of celebration (have a look at Tony Blair’s inauguration in 1997 if you don’t believe me- oh, and America, I hate to break this to you, but Barack Obama= Tony Blair in a different tie). Things, this time, really were going to be better.
There were a handful of writers at the time that attempted to catch this feeling, who despised the right wing of this country and wanted to set it all to rights. Christopher Brookmyre was one of them.
Quite Ugly One Morning was Brookmyre’s debut novel. It’s rougher than sandpaper- lacking the sheer polish of later works, and being more openly influenced by American authors (notably Carl Hiassen- one major character in Quite Ugly is, to Brookmyre’s own admission, modelled on Skin Tight’s Chemo), but nevertheless it is both a gripping crime thriller and a means for the author to rant at some of his pet hate subjects. Which is convenient, seeing as some of his pet hate subjects are also my pet hate subjects. This is a satire dressed as crime fiction, a savage and brutal indictment of the accountancy-first mentality that dominates so many corporations, and a scathing demolition of the post-Thatcherite middle-management fucks that seemed to have sprung up like mushrooms from rotten carpet. This is, simply put, an exceptional read.
Quite Ugly One Morning opens with a description of a particularly unpleasant murder scene. I can’t really do it justice, but to say that it’s fucking horrible is a gross slander against fucking horrible things. This is a crime scene dreamt up in the deeper bowels of hell, where a giant turd on a mantlepiece comes as merely the cherry on a truly unpleasant cake. Into the midst of this blunders Jack Parlabane, investigative journalist and recent LA fugitive. He spends the rest of the novel solving the mystery of who killed Dr. Ponsonby, aided willingly by Ponsonby’s ex Sarah Slaughter and a few other minor characters. The conspiracy he uncovers is both horrendously plausible and deeply disturbing, being the inevitable final destination of reducing the NHS to a numbers-first entity where profit is more important than human life.
Quite Ugly has some exceptionally well drawn characters. The head of the Edinburgh NHS trust is a despicable fat “toley” called Stephen Lime- a true product of British middle-management failure, who despite continued corporate embarrassments has somehow managed to climb his way up to being Chief Executive of the NHS trust (We’ve got heart in the HeartTM). Lime is, brilliantly, almost a cartoon villain- he’s fat, severely unattractive despite serious wealth, stupid, greedy and odious. He’s a fantastic hate figure. Secondly, Lime’s henchman, Darren, is not so much a hitman as an enthusiastic amateur who’s verve for the job outstrips his talent- he’s the Chemo character I referred to earlier. These two bastards, actually, supply a lot of the humour of the novel, and believe me this is a very funny book. Parlabane himself, actually, is a bit lacking being as he is obviously wish fulfillment- a dashing international journalist with a penchant for cat burglary who always gets his man (and the girl) is pressing things a touch, but, hell, he’s damned entertaining and what’s the point of writing a novel if you don’t get to enjoy a bit of wish-fulfillment by proxy? (I had an English teacher that despised the Bond novels for being little more than “Ian Fleming masturbating into a typewriter”)
Digressions aside, the reason that I love this book is that it is damned funny. The plot, such as it is, is but an excuse for Brookmyre to hang a series of highly entertaining polemics on. There are so many examples I can choose from- whether it is the contrast between the management/ admin section of the trust being lush and tropical whereas the hospital is a third world dump, or the description fo medical students and Junior Doctors, but the one I think I’m going to go for is a personal pet hate of mine, one that I’ve borrowed endlessly and one that never ceases to make me smile. I give you Christopher Brookmyre on management-speak:
Parlabane found the word ‘pro-active’ enormously useful, as it immediately exposed the speaker as an irredeemable arsehole, whatever previous impression might have been given. Once upon a time, he remembered, people and companies just did things. But that ceased to be impressive enough, and for a while they ‘actively’ did things. Now they ‘pro-actively’ did thing, but it was still the same bloody things that they were doing when they plain old did things. Meaningless wank-language. Every time he heard it he imagined George Orwell doing another 360 down below… The LA angle was what really opened them up, the thought of all those people out in Hollywoodland reading about their pro-active pro-activeness proving too intoxicating for them to notice that Paralabane wasn’t actually listening to anything they were saying.
Fantastic. Not only laugh out loud funny, but truly accurate for any poor sap that has had to deal with this filth. This novel is stuffed full of rants such as this, and it may not come as a massive surprise to hear that I pretty much agree with him about all of them.
Overall, this is a rough-and-ready jewel of a novel. Later Brookmyre, notably Killing a Frog, is far more polished and far more sophisticated but lacks the charm of this early book. Not that they aren’t worth a read, but he’s a man who looks at the world he lives in, Modern Scotland, and clearly fucking despises it. However, better than that, he’s also a man with more than enough talent to skewer the focus of his ire, and every time I pick up one of the early novels, I do still smile at the wretched villains and their shabby little scams while laughing at the white-hot rage at the minutiae of life that pours off the page. Quite Ugly One Morning is a stellar debut, a fast and sassy novel with an undercurrent of serious satire and more than worth a gander. Just for Christ’s sake avoid the piss poor TV version of it starring a heinously miscast James Nesbitt.
Until next time,