Thursday, 7 May 2009

Book review: "Stranded, by V. L. McDermid

'Stranded' is a collection of short stories by Val McDermid, author of the 'Wire in the blood' series of novels. Rather disingenuously, Amazon has these books as being by, 'Stranded by Ian Rankin and V.L. McDermid (Paperback - 1 May 2005)', when Ian Rankin only provides a glowing foreword.

As can be expected from a collection of short stories, some are strong and others are weak. Unfortunately, in this case the weaker ones far outnumber the stronger ones.

One of the main problems with this book is that there are few, if any, sympathetic male characters. The father in ' The Girl Who Killed Santa Claus' is perhaps the only one. Aside from him, the male characters are all rapists, wife-leavers, philanderers or murders. If this book was written with women detailed in a similar manner, it would rightly be called misogynistic. I am not claiming that the author is guilt of misandry; just that she fails to write sympathetic male characters.

To give a tone of the book, there is this snippet from 'A traditional Christmas':
Unlikely as it is, this Scottish working class lesbian feminist homeopath fell head over heels for the whole English country-house package.
To explain the problems with the stories, it is perhaps best to examine one in more detail:


The worst story by a long shot is 'Four Calling Birds'. Ordinarily I would not go into such detail about a story during a review, but in this case I think it is necessary to show why I think it is such a bad story.

The story starts off with an interior monologue from one of the characters, Noreen. She starts off by blaming Margaret Thatcher for everything that happens in the story. Four women whose husbands lose their jobs during the Miner's Strike get a job as bingo caller at the local hall. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and a new manager arrives. He sacks the ladies as the company wants to replace them with an automated calling system. He also cancels a 'Children in Need' charity gig.

When Noreen's son (a bisexual actor) gets to hear about this, they hatch a place for revenge. They manage to hide a camera inside the manager's house, then doctor the video to make it look as though his family have been kidnapped. The actor goes to the bingo hall with a fake gun, steals the money out of the safe, then forces the manager to perform a sex act on him. The act is videotaped, and the video is used to blackmail the manager into giving the women their jobs back.

It is an incredibly nasty story, with not a single redeeming feature. As a reader I like to see natural justice at the end of a book - not necessarily the hero winning, but if he fails then it has to be a glorious failure. Endings such as this, where there is no justice, leave an exceptionally bad taste in my mouth (pun intended).

The author's attempts to make the manager appear a character deserving of such treatment falls flat - the company tells him to install an automated caller system, and the cancellation of a charity evening hardly constitutes an excuse for rape and blackmail. What it needed was for the manager to be a much worse character - for instance, if he raped one of the callers. Then, and only then, would the ending be excused as a story of bitter revenge.

At the end of the day, none of the characters in this story are sympathetic. And are we meant to believe that Thatcher was really to blame for what happened? Of course not. I suppose it could be indicative of how easy it is to foist personal responsibility onto a hate figure - Noreen and her son did the awful deed in order to get her job back, and she is foisting that blame onto someone else. Yet somehow it seemed out of place. Thatcher-hate is so passée.


A much better and lighter story is
The Girl Who Killed Santa Claus', a bitter-sweet tale about a young girl's mistake at Christmas. This is not really a crime story, and the parent's reaction at the end of the story is heart-warming. Sadly, this is one of the shorter stories, and there are other poor ones as well - the opening story 'Mittel' rambled on, and 'White nights, black magic' is well written, but the crime involved is nasty.

I would give this two out of five stars. It was a deeply disappointing book from an author who definitely can do better.

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