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The big lie of American capitalism is that corporations work in their own best interests. In fact they’re constantly doing things that will eventually bring them to their knees. Most of these blunders involve toxic chemicals that any competent chemist should know to be dangerous. They pump these things into the environment and don’t event try to protect themselves.

In the opening pages of Zodiac, Sangaman Taylor snorts a bag of nitrous oxide and he describes the effect as being like having “half of an orgasm backfired in the middle of my brain“. The first time I read Neal Stephenson‘s novel Snow Crash, my reaction was comparable to Sanagaman’s druggy delirium. Here was a writer, I thought, who got *it*. Two years ago I was reading an article about Stephenson in Wired magazine, where in his latest publicity photos the author had begun to resemble a benign monk. His novels have broken out of the cyberpunk genre and his latest series the Baroque Cycle a remarkably ambitious fictionalised account of the history of ‘natural philosophy’.

The man is my guru.

Zodiac, as it happens, is a relatively early book of Stephenson’s, although still bearing the stylistic traces of ambition, humour and erudition so common in his writing.

Sangaman Taylor is a genius-level environmental activist working with a group known as GEE in the Boston area. Where other students that graduated from the same colleges as himself wound up working for the major chemical companies, S.T. became convinced that only he could stand in the way of rampant profiteering and the flagrant breaking of environmental protection laws. Not above snorkeling around punctured effluent pipe-lines, traipsing through sewer tunnels, and then holding the press conference with the chemical samples he manages to obtain, there is nothing he enjoys more than beating the corporate P.R. reps at their own game. Part intellectual Robin Hood cum media darling, S.T. enjoys the fruits of his labour, even if he has to whip the tree-hugging suporters of GEE into line every once and a while.

When a member of a family with connections to the number one polluter of Boston Harbour stands for election, S.T. goes on the warpath. Searching for evidence that connects Alvin Pleshy, nicknamed ‘The Groveler’, directly to the dumping of toxic waste by Basco, S.T. discovers a highly virulent polycarbon chemical present in the waters of the harbour. Lobsters that have absorbed the substance have been left with liquified livers. Humans who come into contact with the water themselves are coming down with a deadly infection, one that was previously seen in Vietnam, where Basco has also run factories. Then there is matter of thugs on S.T.’s trail whenever he visits the harbour in his Zodiac motor boat, a gang of murderous Satanists high on P.C.P., an attempted assassination and a corporate headhunter from a Basco subdivision who wants S.T. on their side.

Through it all S.T. makes sure to make time for beer and Vietnamese food, to keep his thinking fluid. Not even being framed as an ecoterrorist can stop his unwavering drive to put his intelligence to a good cause.

At times this book reads like a lecture on chemistry, with long discussions of covalent bonding and the degrees of toxicity we are exposed to in everyday life. Stephenson makes for an entertaining lecturer though and Sangaman is a witty tourguide on this hellish investigation of corporate irresponsibility. The environmentalist message of this book is ultimately a positive one. One man can turn the tide against systematic abuses of the law through an astute application of intelligence and cunning (it also helps to have a gang of South Boston Irish on hand as well).

There is a near-Pynchonian degree of humour and invective on display here. The book itself may well be described as an ecoterrorist tract, yet it makes a sincere appeal for greater transparency for the sake of the public good.

A punchy, complex and winningly intelligent political thriller, with a strong environmental message. Excellent stuff.

When civilians finally became aware of the unit they had wholeheartedly endorsed it, but the publicity had brought condemnation from naturally secretive government officials. A new generation of number-crunchers had come forward to insist on regulations being followed to the letter. The concept of an agency run on principles of instinct and experience was anathema to them.

Saturday night in Bulli was firmly established as ‘television night’, during Stephanie and my first stay in Australia together as a couple. The evening would begin with Iron Chef, move on to Rockwiz and then be wrapped up with New Tricks. It’s a lovely show about a group of retired coppers solving crimes.

This book is a lot like New Tricks. Except with some Richard Carpenter-style occultism and hints of Iain Sinclair‘s Lud Heat thrown on top for good measure.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) was founded in post-war London to handle cases that remained stubbornly unsolved. Driven by detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, the unit is known for its success in concluding a string of investigations, but also the ability of its lead detectives for upsetting the top brass. In fact having uncovered some embarassing secrets linked directly to the Home Office, the PCU has been unofficially disbanded.

The eccentric Bryant has taken to forced retirement with little grace, pouring over mountains of obscure literature and refusing to leave his home. His partner May has been left dismayed by the abrupt change in their fortunes and is pondering becoming a private eye. The rest of the team resigned in protest at the treatment of Bryant and May to ensure no further action could be taken against them.

Then a series of sightings of an unusual figure dressed in a stag costume in the King’s Cross area provide May with an idea. The location of these appearances is politically sensitive, as much of the development is tied up with a strict government timetable designed to renovate the outer sections of London in time for the 2012 Olympics. When a decapitated body is found in the vicinity, May has just the leverage he needs for the PCU to be reinstated. Except this time they are to receive no assistance from the Home Office, or the Met and their investigation is to be conducted in secret.

Having been forced to accept such a compromise, May needs no reminding that this is the PCU’s last chance. Everything has to be done by the book and within official guidelines. So when Bryant starts ranting about psychogeography, occult rites, chaos theory and pagan sacrifice, May can see that bright light at the end of the tunnel receding ever further away.

It turns out this is the seventh book in Christopher Fowler‘s Bryant and May series. Nevertheless I had no problem getting up to speed, as each of the characters in the PCU is sketched quickly in the opening chapters, even as the business of unfolding the plot begins in earnest. Bryant’s holistic approach to crime-solving draws groans from his colleagues, but their obvious affection for him overrides any concerns with the state of his sanity. The rest of team each have their own quirks and personal relationships to be dealt with, including a Home Office mole who becomes increasingly sympathic to the unorthodox methods of the group.

Fowler enjoys indulging in London esoterica, while also reminding the reader that this is not just another police thriller concerned with naff ancient conspiracies. Cleverly the plot reveals that mundane reality has many a quirk of fate that makes it more interesting than it first appears. The events that unfold are shown in the opening chapter to be connected to the London Blitz; the unidentifiable murder victims’ lives are revisited through a judicious use of flashbacks; environmental activism and a loophole in property law throws up much confusion in the PCU’s path; and finally the eventual culprit does not measure up to Bryant’s desire for a Holmesian nemesis, but is no less dangerous.

This is simultaneously a dry procedural mystery that concerns itself with some strikingly unusual events. There is a sly intelligence behind Fowler’s plot contortions, as well as a love of bad puns. Looking at his blog there’s also an evident interest in London history and popular culture. At one point a character is described as having passionate views vis-à-vis Star Trek versus Battlestar Galactica.

An amusing murder mystery with great characters and fascinating historical detail. Great fun.

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