Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Dervish House

I remember my Dad was partial to what you might call respectable thrillers. He liked Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton, John le Carre, that sort of thing. He'd happily tear through one of them in an afternoon over a day of test cricket and two packets of Benson & Hedges, happy as you'd ever see him. Part of what he liked about those thrillers, I think, was the way they dealt in almost real-world events, the way they seemed ripped from the headlines.

It's a kind of a sci fi, thing, almost, with a speculative edge to it as it tries to imagine possible scenarios for the shift in geopolitics. Le Carre's novels seem to take place in what would seem like a nightmarish SF dystopia if we didn't know how scarily close to the truth is is. It's not far at all into a cyberpunk thriller if you push these stories a decade or two into the future. Authors like Bruce Sterling, Jon Courtney Grimwood, Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan kind of fit that niche, and Charles Stross has acknowledged the inspiration of Len Deighton.

Like my Dad and his thrillers, I love these near-future crime and espionage capers and The Dervish House is a particularly satisfying example. 

Like the best of the respectable thrillers, MacDonald's novel draws on the real world and speculates intriguingly on global politics and their consequences. The technological aspects add another dimension to the thematic backdrop of the novel, thinking not just about the world as it is now, but the world as it might be.

MacDonald cleverly blends his futuristic imagination with the exotic setting of Istanbul, and I suspect that this provides a little cover from the clang of neologisms and the clash of new technology in familiar surroundings. Ceteps and bit bots and automatic cars and nano drugs fit easily into the exotic world of the Istanbul and Adam Dedes Square. The familiar rituals of day to day – having a coffee, crowded public transport, going school or jobs as security guards, or in marketing or finance – are just a little bit sideways from my non-Turkish expectations in both the culture and the futurstickiness. It's deftly done; one can't see the joins, and the richly authentic atmosphere is one of the major appeals.

The Dervish House tells its story through a range of viewpoint characters, each one covering one angle of a bigger story, with perhaps only the reader seeing how they join up. Each of the characters is firmly planted in their world, with friends and family (except, perhaps, for Can, a young boy isolated by the deafness imposed on him because of a heart condition). Their problems are rooted in their day to day lives and their histories, which makes for convincing stories and helps to bring the setting alive.

One might be forgiven for feeling that the plot lines all intersect a little too neatly, and that the conceit of all the characters living in the same disused sufi temple, the Dervish House of the title, is a little too meta, but that's part of the fun here. Another plot takes in the search of the name of God, written in code across the city, and another character is an economist who has been mapping the city to discover its patterns and true neighbourhoods. There's more than a whiff of psychogeography about it all, and pretty soon we visit the real article in our search for an ancient pasha preserved in honey.

There are a few bones that stick in the craw a little, of course. The sub-plot about the high-tech start-up never quite comes alive, and neither did the economist's story of lost love. In a typical fit of plot-denseness on my part, I have not been unable to fathom how Ayasa was set up by the cops outside of corruption – maybe it is as simple of corruption? - and whatever happened to the Mellified Man of Iskenderun anyway?

As we build to the climax, I did begin to wonder, also, about the amazing adaptability of the robot toy, but MacDonald turns the heat up very effectively as each of the stories reaches their denouement and was carried along by the momentum of the plot falling in to place. MacDonald lays his groundwork with great care in the earlier chapters and by the end it was almost undignifidely exciting. 

However much I enjoy the setting elements of the near future thriller – the gadgets, the social change, the unique pressures these put the characters under, it's this thrilling pay off that is so appealing about respectable thrillers of whatever genre. Both those sixties and seventies thrillers that Dad used to read, and their modern cyberpunk equivalent have to deliver this kind of kick in the guts, and The Dervish House delivers it alongside a cast of intriguing characters in a richly evoked near future setting.


  1. My dad was an aficionado of Deighton and Le Carre too - not so much Forsyth, though I think one or two of his are around the house.
    I quite like them, but Deighton in particular wrote so many it seems hard to start reading him. The ones I've read have been the stand-alone books, never any of the series.

    Le Carre gets more plaudits and I think probably is the better writer of the two, but I found Deighton's "Funeral in Berlin" genuinely well written and would even defend it as Proper Literature.
    Granted, the tacked on bit at the end about the gay intelligence officer was very tacked-on, but at the time it was a Searing Political Indictment.

    I shall look out for The Dervish House, sounds like my kind of thing.

  2. Well, Dad went all the way down to Wilbur Smith and a few other less respectable thriller writers... but, he was abook hoover and would read them as fast he could snag them from the Broadcasting House Honesty Library (half the old paperbacks at Mum & Dad's house are thus stamped).

    I never read much myself becuase of my Particular Interests, but I've been reading a bit of Le Carre for the last few years, and I really like them.

    (As an aside, I read The Perfect Spy at around about the same time as Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, and I was struck at the similarity between Alison Hart's ghosts and the "chums" forever at the back of Pym's mind. Very similar kind of construction - or maybe deconstruction - of a person by examining the people around them when they were children.)

    I've never read any Len Deighton or Freddy Forsyth, but I'm definitely interested - Day of the Jackal is supposed to be pretty good.

    Anyway, yes I think you would like this one and it's worth ferreting out. I was a little wary at first, as I had this idea of MacDonald as kind of po-faced SF literature of the sort I'm not very fond of, but this book isn't like that at all. It is perhaps a little self-aware, but at the climax especially it casts aside the more meta level stuff and focuses on real urgent matters of life and death.

  3. Oh, for Cold War thrillers, by the way, I recommend "Heart's Journey in Winter".
    It's very post-the genre (and is set and the tail end of the era), and it's stylised to pretty much the furthest point possible.
    I wasn't even that sure I'd enjoyed it when I got to the end, or fully understood everything that had happened, but I definitely want to read it again, so there must be something to it.

    I suppose this is not so much a recommendation as an invitation to participate in an experiment.

  4. Hm, looks interesting, and the author is the grandson of John Buchan! I'll keep an eye out.

  5. Read "The Odessa File" recently, and found it a bit clunky in places, although it has some positives. I liked Grimwood's "Pashazade" series more than Tom, so I'll be sure to look this one up.

  6. The Arabesk series is an obvious comparison. I loved those books, too, but I think MacDonald's less enamoured of the traditional crime/thriller genre forms (particularly characterisation) than Grimwood. I think you can see the roots of the Ashraf Bey books in JCG's earlier novels, such as Red Robe or reMix, which are more conventional (although very enjoyable) cyber-noir thrillers. In the cast, in particular, MacDonald totally avoids the square jawed hero (or his moody modern equivalent) (eg), let alone the kind of big-tits sex object you find in Richard Morgan novels, and there's only one, low-key, action sequence near the end.


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