Review of Charles Stross’ novel The Jennifer Morgue.
I enjoy Stross’ books generally, and in specific I enjoyed The Atrocity Archives, his first novel about the Laundry, a British agency tasked with dealing with supernatural threats. The Jennifer Morgue is the sequel.
Our geeky hero Bob Howard is once again sent out to save the world, this time by trying to stop billionaire Ellis Billingsley from extracting elder artifacts from a subterranean graveyard in the Caribbean. In this, he’s paired with Ramona Random, an agent from the United States’ Black Chamber (apparently the Laundry’s counterpart, but more mysterious and crafty). Ramona is not human, but hides this under a glamour; she also has frightening voracious – and fatal – appetites, which creep the hell out of Bob when a spell results in the two of them being psychically linked.
Billingsley, it turns out, has a mystical generator protecting him by being a plot device (literally!) such that only someone filling the role of James Bond in a Bond film can stop him. Since Bond is British, guess who’s been tabbed for this role? The catch is that if a Bondian hero actually gets close to stopping Billingsley, then he could just turn off the generator and off the hapless chump.
I enjoyed The Jennifer Morgue most when it was exploring the world of the Laundry: The first effort – by the US – to raise an item from the Morgue, Billingsley’s background, and the entertaining notion that humanity has a treaty with the Deep Ones who live at the bottom of the ocean. The main story was less rewarding, as it involves a lot of feint-and-counter-feint, but perhaps two or three too many layers of that so that the story doesn’t quite hang together. There’s more going on than meets the eye, but unfortunately it rather undercuts Bob’s role in the story, which made me wonder what the point of it all was. And the presence of Ramona in the story, though an abstractly interesting dilemma for Bob, seemed rather superfluous as well.
At some meta level, I can understand that Stross is deconstructing the Bond films here, recasting them in a considerably different environment. The problem is, I think the Bond films are self-deconstructing, especially after 40+ years of the things; some of them have veered so far into the realm of self-parody that the basic elements of the formula are clear to everyone, and their ridiculousness is equally evident. It seems an unnecessary experiment.
So, although it’s got its clever and entertainment stretches, I don’t think The Jennifer Morgue is a very successful novel. Maybe I just didn’t appreciate what it was trying to do, but the combination of elements just didn’t work for me.
After the novel is a short story, “Pimpf” (the etymology of that title escapes me), in which Bob gets an intern at work, and his intern gets caught in a trap in a local server of an on-line computer game. It’s quite a clever idea, using computer games as mechanisms for raising eldritch horrors, and this story has a nifty kicker which sends it in a completely different – yet still satisfying – direction at the end. Really, for what it is I liked it better than the novel.
Rounding out the volume is the afterward, “The Golden Age of Spying”, in which Stross examines the James Bond novels and films and their eccentricities, particularly how Bond was exactly not the sort of spy who could have thrived during the Cold War. The essay goes off the rails part-way through when Stross starts mixing his fictional world in with the essay, so it loses its interest there (although it’s still amusing), but the first half is quite insightful and informative.