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.