November 16, 2009


by Christopher Brookmyre
394 pages, Little, Brown publisher

Review by Paul Fenton

I’ve listed Pandaemonium under the fantasy and sci-fi category with reluctance, and I now have some empathy for bookstore workers who struggle with questions like:

Which shelf does this James Patterson romance story sit on?

Where do I put Carl Hiaasen’s nonfiction memoir about how much he sucks at golf?

How much time should we allow to elapse between releasing The Lost Symbol and Secrets of The Lost Symbol?

The answer to the first two questions tends to be crime; the answer to the third is apparently measured in minutes. Christopher Brookmyre is, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, a crime writer, considered a pioneer in the boisterous bampot subgenre of tartan noir. In storytelling style, Pandaemonium doesn’t deviate greatly from Brookmyre’s oeuvre. It’s just that instead of terrorists and master criminals and shooting and explosions and blood and plot-twists and smart-arse protagonists, the pages of Pandaemonium are filled with demons from hell and lunatics … and shooting and explosions and blood and plot-twists and smart-arse protagonists.

The narrative is shared across multiple points-of-view, beginning with a biologist working in a top-secret Ministry of Defence research installation in Scotland. In addition to his fellow lab-geeks, he shares the facility with the US military (of course) and representatives of the Vatican (why not?) who are led by the awe-inspiring Cardinal Tullian, a hybrid of Father Merrin, Fox Mulder and Indiana Jones. While attempting to play around with quantum physics, it seems the scampish scientists inadvertently opened a portal to a parallel dimension which spits out demons. The Vatican reps seem to think they’ve opened a doorway to hell, but the scientists are … well … sceptical, as you’d expect.

Perspective then switches to the feature characters in the story: a busload of pupils from St Peter’s Catholic School, on their way to a country retreat to help them deal with the murder of one of their classmates by one of their classmates. Students, teachers and a wavering priest form the central cast, and Brookmyre gives a balanced weight to each, fleshing out the nerdy gamers and the god-bothering lasses and the bampots and the bullies with a care and attention which rarely encourages the reader to skip ahead to the “good bits”. If it weren’t for the what’s-going-on-down-in-the-lab scenes spaced throughout the first half of the book, it would read like a kind of dark Scottish Breakfast Club. Understandable, because close character development is a feature of Brookmyre’s writing, and because the moment you unleash a horde of bloodthirsty pissed-off demons on a group of schoolchildren on retreat in an isolated pocket of the Highlands, opportunities for insightful dialogue are limited at best.

Brookmyre is a satirist at heart, frequently taking pot-shots at the government, public services, celebrities and reality television. With Pandaemonium he’s sitting outside the Vatican with a slingshot hurling rocks at the Catholic Church. The science versus faith debate is almost a character in the story, it’s that prominent, and the winner of that debate is one of the focal points of suspense. Yes, people will die horrible deaths, decapitated and disembowelled, we know that … but what will the cynical physics teacher make of the red-skinned horned creatures whose skin is burned by holy water? What does it mean?

Fans of Brookmyre’s other books will inevitably enjoy Pandaemonium; newcomers might find the pace slow to start, but I urge those readers to persevere. Trust me, the bloodletting will come. Enjoy the debates. Enjoy the adolescent tension. Challenge yourself to suspend your disbelief when one student says: ‘I’d like to start with Pope Benedict’s universal indult restoring an individual priest’s permission to celebrate the Tridentine Rite.’

Terrifying, no?

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