Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The morals of Christopher Brookmyre’s story, plus a question for readers

The author of Boiling a Frog is a moralist. He pokes ruthless fun at obtuse and hypocritical Catholic leaders. He writes with spitting and sometimes hysterically funny contempt for image-driven, lying New Labourites, vicious, selfish, lying Conservatives, and the irrelevant Scottish National Party. All are far more concerned about their own preservation, he tells us, than they are about the people whom is it ostensibly their job or sacred duty to help.

More than Brookmyre’s biting humor, though, the fates of the characters point up what the author is up to. Everyone in this book is a scapegrace or worse, and everyone gets what he or she deserves.

Brookmyre’s outraged morality is finely calibrated: There are the purely evil characters, who have no qualms about what they do, and there are those burdened with the knowledge that they act wrongly. Within the latter group, those who obey their scruples and redeem themselves with a good deed are rewarded, and those who disregard their scruples suffer. This holds true for everyone from … well, no spoilers here, but read the book, then tote up the score yourself. Redemption (I choose this word carefully) depends not on what the characters think, no matter how sincerely they may think it, but on what they do.

I wrote earlier that Boiling a Frog broke rules with its lengthy expositions. Don’t ask me to provide examples, but those lengthy passages seemed almost a product of the nineteenth century, when the “show, don’t tell” rule was unheard of. The moral aspect is reminiscent of the eighteenth century. Though the contrast with the novel’s title might be jarring, this book could well bear the subtitle Virtue Rewarded.

And now the question for you, readers. It has been said that crime fiction’s appeal lies in its creation of a world in which wrongs are righted and order at least partly restored. Is this accurate?
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From Boiling a Frog:

"You remember the Tories and `the economic miracle’ of the Eighties?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember an economic miracle taking place in the Eighties?”

“Eh. No, not really. Far from it, in fact.”

“Exactly. They got the phrase into the press and into the public mind. And, even smarter, they did it in the past tense … They referred so often to something as having happened that everyone began to believe it had. … Boom. Word association: Eighties, Thatcher, Economic Miracle. It replaced Eighties, Thatcher, Unemployment.”

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Maxine said...

Actually it was an era of huge economic change for ordinary people living in England. Interest-free loans for individuals wanting to start up a small business put tons of money into the treasury (most of the businesses never came to anything,so the repayments ended up garnering a hefty piece of interest or liquidation of security assets, all into the treasury); council house sales; the beginning of "selling the family silver" to quote Macmillan -- privatisation of our nationalised industries, shares being purchased by individual people, causing 100s of 1000s of people to be shareowners for the first time; abolition of the upper limit on taking money out of the country; introduction of TESSAs (tax-free savings accounts) and other similar enterprises. There may have been no economic miracle on the international scene, but all of these and others (eg natural gas from the North Sea) made the average Brit a heap better off than before, and kick-started the "expectation for no effort" culture in which we live now.

October 04, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the history lesson. You raise far more questions than I can deal with adequately here. Suffice to say that a number of the items you listed could provide fertile ground for a crime writer's imagination –- or for that of a far-away North American blogger.

What happened to those whose new businesses failed or who lacked an entrepreneurial bent in the first place? Was credit too easily available? Was selling the family silver a wrenching experience for some?

Incidentally, something similar may be happening in northern India, where the country is creating economic zones something like the Chinese ones. Farmers who sell their land to developers may make out well. Low-caste farmers who own no land may not.

October 04, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Maxine's analysis of the UK of the 1980s is very interesting. If she's correct, it's particularly ironic that the legacy of supposedly self-sufficient Thatcherism should be the establishment of a culture of 'expectation for no effort'. But that's politics for you. 'Selling the family silver' was undoubtedly painful for some. From a crime fiction perspective, David Peace's 'GB84' and Reginald Hill's 'Underworld', both of which deal (very differently) with the impact of the 1984 coal miners' strike, are worth reading.

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Michael, I also found that aspect of Maxine's analysis especially interesting and surprising. But then, I also was taken by the narrator's view in Boiling a Frog of sexual license as an expression of Tory-style selfishness rather than as a sin of the Left, as would be more common in America. ("In a sense, it brought out the little Tory bastard in everyone. It was about me, me, me: ego-driven individualism, id-driven indulgence, and it didn't care who got hurt, neglected or abandoned in the process.")

I suspect one does not hear many Conservatives making either that argument or Maxine's.

October 05, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Yes, one of the first things Maggie Thatcher did (she had three terms) was to allow anyone (virtually) an interest free loan of £10K (a lot in the early 80s) to start their own business. Plenty of people took her up on it. But they still had to put something up as security for the loan -- a house, a life savings, or whatever.
These people were on the whole just ordinary people who just went back to being what they were before.....but without a house or other insurance against their own age -- hence setting up another huge social problem (ageing population) which we are now experiencing with the removal of state benefits for the elderly (not in Scotland, but in England).
"Self sufficient" Thatcherism was always a buzzword of the politicians, not reality. Take council house sales, for example-- council flat tenants who took advantage of Thatcher's rhetoric and politics to "buy cheap" found themselves lumbered with jerry-built substandard housing with huge rates (local tax) bills, compared with the "old days" in which the council had the responsibility for maintenance. Again, a large number of disillusioned souls who had bought into the vision!
The point I was making was in response to Peter's point -- yes there was an "economic miracle" in England for many people during the 1980s, who were able to do things (because of Thatcher) that previously had been reserved for the better-off. But in the 1990s, reality set in. Now there is a kind of bitterness among many people, the knowledge that you can't have an "economic miracle" on paper-- it has to come from actual economics. Some of us always knew that, but others were a bit greedy, or just gullible.
One person who has explored these issues in quite an interesting way is the playwright David Hare -- in his play "Amy's View" for example.

Michael-- if you return-- your book The Adversary is fab!

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I know how many terms the former Iron Lady and now just plain Lady served. Not all of us in America are so parochial, you know!

If only we still believed in the good, old-fashioned Christian hell, we could console ourselves with the thought that Thatcher would pay for the consequences of her acts. Instead, those of who can afford (for now) a dispassionate distance can muse sadly about the endless repetition of human folly.

Quite possibly apropos of this cheerful chat, a colleague of mine has just read a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This colleague said he found the parallels between contemporary and pre-Great Depression America frightening, especially with so much economic power being concentrated in so few hands.

October 05, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Maxine's description of Thatcherism is exactly right. I think one of Thatcher's overlooked talents was her ability to create the illusion of espousing one set of values (frugality, self-sufficiency, steadfastness, empowering the less well-off, and so on) while often practising the opposite.

And thanks for the good words about 'The Adversary', Maxine - glad you enjoyed it.

October 07, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Who would have thought that Margaret Thatcher was a closet hedonist?

October 07, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Well, I was really thinking in terms of her political behaviour, rather than her personal preferences, but I suppose you never know...

October 07, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Sorry, Peter, I didn't mean to imply you didn't know how long Thatcher was in power -- I wrote it in the spirit of it being a long time in political terms, hence she could put her stamp on the decade.
I also think it is an easy way out to blame a particular politician for all problems -- (not that anyone in these comments is doing this! But plenty do). Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society, but yes there is (she was wrong). And there is an element of people contributing by taking her up on what she was offering. "Personal responsibility" and all of that.

October 07, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I figured you meant Thatcher's economic and political behaviour, Michael; I was joking. But, as you say, one never knows. Brookmyre did, after all, make a connection between selfish sexual desire and selfish Tory politics ...

October 07, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ha! Maxine, I'm old enough to remember Thatcher and her influence -- the special friendship with Ronald Reagan, and all.

I wonder if she recognizes her mistakes as well as her accomplishments.

October 07, 2007  

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