Dark Rain, by Conor Corderoy
(Macmillan New Writing, 2006, 243 pages, £12.99, ISBN 0-230-00010-X
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Dark Rain because it looked horribly like a case of a non-SF author having a bright SFish idea and re-inventing the wheel. I’m still not sure I was wrong, but he does it damn well.
There’s a certain misleading familiarity early on: a hard-boiled detective novel™ in a Blade Runnery non-stop rainy universe™ where the gruesome murder of one of the privileged class™ acts as a maguffin for all kinds of adventures and revelations. The population of Britain is rigidly divided into the Wets (the unemployed proletariat who have to live in shanty towns in the rain), the Drys (the impoverished middle class who can at least afford a roof over their heads) and the rich, pampered Domers (who live luxuriously in … now, let’s not always see the same hands). Meanwhile there’s a fleet of alien ships heading towards Earth, and the truth about them which has evaded every one of Earth’s eight billion people occurs to the reader halfway through the sentence where we learn of their existence, on page 2.
Hard-living, smoking and drinking Inspector O’Neil is called in to investigate the murder of a Domer, which really was quite imaginatively gruesome – especially when, later on, we learn exactly how it was done – and then thrown off the case for refusing to swallow the sheer preposterousness of the official line. In fact, not just thrown off but dismissed from the force altogether – no small matter as it means he can now precisely number the days in which he himself will have to make the one-way transition from Dry to Wet. But help is at hand, because the widow of the deceased dons the garb of femme fatale and hires him privately to ferret out the truth.
And this is where I began to sit up and pay attention, because the case is nicely complicated, with twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and when the action starts it never lets up. O’Neil follows a relatively easy set of clues to Set Piece #1, leading on to torture and more gruesomeness and dropping of clues, and then a fight with some near-invincible bad guys that goes on until he seems to have got away, and then goes on some more until he really must have got away, and then bloody hell, it keeps going on and he still hasn’t got away. A lesser novel would give you a nice quick resolution to this bit after putting up some token resistance, ending with a nice quip from the narrator, but no. From here the plot ricochets chaotically off into the distance, with O’Neil hanging on for dear life, and the reader is swept up with him all the way to the plot climax. What seemed nice and predictable is suddenly anything but.
If Corderoy knows this kind of universe has been done once or twice before, he doesn’t show it, and his unfamiliarity with the familiarity works strongly in his favour. His look at it is new and fresh. The novel is rich in sensory data, giving you input from all five senses and placing you exactly in the world he has imagined, with every plot nuance followed through with rigorous logic.
If the book has a weakness it’s in the sheer barkingness of the bad guys; O’Neil never really has a chance of using traditional police work and deduction to find them out, because they are basically bonkers and way too complicated for their own good. You have to wonder why the first ritual murder was performed in the privacy of the victim’s home whereas for reasons of plot the next has to be performed at Baddies HQ. Like all arbitrarily stratified societies, it’s never quite made clear why the huge downpressed majority don’t simply arise and overthrow the people at the top. Or what the people at the top actually do to make their livings. And, though it seems a picky point, the editing could have been better – there are just enough small slips to start being annoying, like the resistance organisation 5C turning into C5, not once but often.
But for all that, Dark Rain takes a fresh look at tropes you thought were long past their best-bys; the plot is cunning and unexpected; the characters are vibrant; and the whole novel simply revels in the fantastic experience of being human and alive.