Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 482 pages
Joe Spork repairs clocks, a far cry from his late father, a flashy London gangster. But when Joe fixes one particularly unusual device, his life is suddenly upended. Joe's client, Edie Banister, is more than just a kindly old lady - she's a former superspy. And the device? It's a 1950s doomsday machine. And having triggered it, Joe now faces the wrath of both the government and a diabolical South Asian dictator, Edie's old arch-nemesis.
With Joe's once-quiet world now populated with mad monks, psychopathic serial killers, scientific geniuses, girls in pink leather, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe, he realizes that the only way to survive is to muster the courage to fight, help Edie complete a mission she gave up years ago, and pick up his father's old gun.
"The game is fixed. Always has been, always will be, and the only way out for a man is the gangster's road."
Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World is one of my highly recommended books. The only reason I won't add Angelmaker to that list is because if you've read one, you've already gotten your requisite dose of "AWESOME! ™" and Angelmaker is just more of the same. And who doesn't like more AWESOME! ™? Except once you get past the AWESOME! ™ you will realize that Angelmaker resembles The Gone-Away World the way all those Facebook games resemble each other — pirates or WWII aces or Mafia hitmen, the faces are different but the core mechanics are pretty much the same.
But this is not entirely fair. Angelmaker is a different book. Instead of spry, cheerful, and AWESOME! ™ 80-year-old Grandmaster Wu, we have spry, cheerful, and AWESOME! ™ nonagenarian Edie Banister, who was quite the derring-doer back in World War II, when she faced an evil Opium Khan and had a hot, tempestuous affair with a female supergenius French scientist.
Now, decades later, her old flame has unleashed a weapon so terrible that it will end all war. Yeah, like poison gas and atomic bombs were supposed to do. You know how well that's going to end.
When I say that Nick Harkaway's brand is "AWESOME! ™", I mean that his writing is full of bluster and braggadocio and brilliance and banter, and sometimes it seems like that's all that's holding the characters up. You love them, but you love them because of the author's brilliant descriptions, the words that come out of their mouths, and the AWESOME! ™ predicaments in which they find themselves.
Joe Spork opens the door. The man departs. Joe turns to Polly to say something about how they're obviously not going to Portsmouth, and finds an oyster knife balanced on his cheek, just under his eye.
"Can we be very clear," Polly Cradle murmurs, "that I am not your booby sidekick or your Bond girl? That I am an independent supervillain in my own right?"
Joe swallows. "Yes, we can," he says carefully.
"There will therefore be no more 'Say hello, Polly'?"
"There will not."
Joe Spork, the other protagonist of Angelmaker, is the son of London's most notorious gangster. Now trying to live a normal, straight life as a clockmaker like his grandfather, who was disgusted by his son's (Joe's father's) criminal career, Joe finds himself given possession of a very dangerous bit of clockwork by an old lady and is soon being pursued by an evil order of torturing artisan monks, government bureaucrats who epitomize the banality of evil, and possibly the most evil man on Earth, who should be dead but now wants to destroy the world.
Joe Spork is an Everyman, and he reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman's lame Everyman protagonists. Except that he actually does shit and he has feelings and Nick Harkaway lays some introspection between gunfights and martial arts battles. Harkaway's father is novelist John Le Carré, and you can see his father's disdain for the cynical state of the world and modern British realpolitik in his writing. The climax of the novel is a rousing speech by Joe Spork, given the impossible task of rallying England's underworld to unified acts of criminality in order to save the world. If you are are a fan of stand-up-and-cheer moments, Harkaway delivers several, from ancient Edie Banister and her one-toothed dog capable of taking out killer ninja monks, to Joe Spork's transformation into "Crazy Joe," leader of London's gangsters.
It is known among coppers and criminals alike that society can be policed only because it consents. When the burden of law or government is too great, or too oppressive, or when economic need or famine breaks the normal course of life, there simply are not, can never be, enough coppers to hold the line. Thus if a man wishes to commit a crime which by its very nature must excite the immediate response of every policeman within twenty miles, his first precaution should be to await a volcano or a popular revolution, so that these diligent officers have other things on their minds. On the other hand, if criminals were ever sufficiently organized as to commit a hundred major crimes on one night, or better yet, a thousand, the vast majority of them must get away scott-free.
And Joe, Polly Cradle, Edie Banister, and Edie's one-toothed pug Bastion, go out to save the world from evil clockwork bees.
Verdict: This book is AWESOME! ™, which is Nick Harkaway's signature writing shtick, and if the monkey-ninja-pirates brand of world-saving adventure appeals to you, Angelmaker, while lacking monkeys, ninjas, or pirates, does have evil monks, clockwork doomsday bees, stylish gangsters, a mustache-twirling supervillain with a god complex, and a ninety-year-old ex-secret agent with a ferocious pug. And some damn fine writing in a spirit of high adventure and political satire.
Also by Nick Harkaway: My review of The Gone-Away World.
My complete list of book reviews.