Friday, 13 June 2014

What Lot’s Wife Saw

(June 2014)

What Lot’s Wife Saw is a speculative cruciverbal epistolary murder mystery novel. Yeah, another one, but let’s forgive the thundering generic unoriginality and look at the story itself, which is actually pretty good.

And, because I’m feeling equally uninspired, let’s work our way down that list of adjectives as we unpack just why this book was such a diverting way to spend a few hours during the onset of rainy season –

SPECULATIVE. Set in a near future where the Dead Sea has inexplicably erupted, overflowing its shores, flooding the Mediterranean, and turning Paris and Madrid into port cities. This eruption has simultaneously unearthed a vast deposit of ‘salt’ on the shores of the Levant. This salt appears to be as about addictive as crack cocaine, and has thus led to a consortium run by the shadowy Seventy-Five to establish a colony on-site to mine and export the product and profit from the world’s insatiable demand. Conveniently enough, there are any number of weird conditions surrounding the colony: electricity doesn’t work, daily and hourly fogs reduce visibility to a few feet, desert filled with hostile natives on one side and a sea on the other so viscous that specially designed flat bottomed ships take weeks to navigate it. Inevitably it represents another in humankind’s long and inglorious history of shitty colonial outposts supplying the First World’s less laudable vices, populated by runaways, castoffs, chancers, and criminals.

CRUCIVERBAL. My enthusiasm for cryptic crosswords far outstrips my ability (and, more recently, my available time) to do them. Given a fair wind and a bit of inspiration I can usually finish a Rufus or Shed, but even finishing half an Araucaria puzzle feels like a superior achievement; not least since the unfortunate passing of the great man last year means there’s now a limited stock, and as such the answers are Not To Be Referred To under any circumstances whatsoever. This information has no real relevance to What Lot’s Wife Saw except that its framing device draws on stories of crossword setters and champions being hired to work as code breakers in Bletchley Park during the war, as a setter for The Times is coerced into working for the Seventy-Five. Phileas Book lost family and friends during the overflow, and now leads a borderline hikikomori lifestyle in Paris compiling his idiosyncratic ‘epistlewords’ for a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts. The consortium would very much like him to help decipher a batch of letters they received from the nobility of the colony, and the entire book represents an extended clue in itself; every story is a puzzle, but the one here is wholly explicit.

EPISTOLARY. Those letters from the erstwhile colonists form the bulk of the text, as the colony’s judge, chief physician, captain of the guard and the like attempt to explain away their roles in the death of its governor and subsequent descent into chaos. They are all, by their own admission, murderers, liars, and cheats, and this creates an interesting problem for Book, and through him the reader: if all the narrators are unreliable, how do you pick out a path to the truth? This is Akutagawa’s In a Grove pushed to the nth degree and for me the real pleasure of this book was that puzzle aspect, as in all honesty the individual voices of the correspondents are pretty indistinguishable (though this may be a deliberate effect to allow the riddle to cohere more effectively).

MURDER MYSTERY. It isn’t so much a whodunit, as a whydunit. Actually, it’s really a whathappened, as the SFnal elements interfere just enough in things to prevent easy answers and create a pleasingly warped set of ground-rules which, quite apart from the inherent exaggerations and fabrications in the letters, allow for speculation to run wild.

To a degree, at least. The final ‘answer’ is actually pretty easy to work out, once you’ve got your cryptic cap on (and not even then; some of the symbolism isn’t exactly subtle), and to be honest the final explanations feel a little cheap and rushed. Maybe I was just expecting a bigger twist, I dunno. However, before that everything works together very nicely indeed, as it should do given the nature of the puzzle. None of the fantastical elements seem gratuitous, and there are, I suspect, several levels you could read this on. Thematically the biblical symbolism obviously floods (sorry) the whole book, and if you were of a mind you could get a lot of mileage out of unpicking the themes of sin, punishment, repentance, and redemption that appear. If you don’t fancy that (and I must confess I didn’t) there’s still a pleasing line in ebony-black farce running through everything that’ll keep you nicely distracted. And then there’s the puzzle. There’s always the puzzle. Once you put the pieces together What Lot’s Wife Saw is very much more than the sum of its parts.

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