Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Depression: A Buyer's Guide": Unlikely but Interesting Espionage

"Depression: A Buyer's Guide," the latest spy novel by veteran master spy writers C. Immanuel Anderson and Kairi Gin Beckstein — yes, they're pen names — and the fifth volume in the "Blue Dagger" series, features Sophie Martoné, the daughter of the recently-assassinated Jesus and Lue Martoné. Readers will recall Sophie as the precocious but unbalanced girl who had grown up in the previous four volumes. In some sense, the "Blue Dagger" series is turning into a literary cycle centered around Sophie; the interpretation carries some weight if one considers Beckstein's comments in her 2006 interview in the London Review of Books. (No need to dwell on the interview here.)

Although "Depression" stands on its own as a complete novel, knowledge of the previous volumes does help one enjoy the read. In the first novel, "And God Said Lue," Sophie was born and provided a subplot of possible autism or other retardation that her parents had to wrestle with. In the second novel, "Three's a Charm," she was the toddler with idiot-savant tendencies. In the third novel, "A View to a Prelude," Sophie was a shy gel of six separated from her parents. "View" was the first novel where Sophie played a significant role in the main plot of the book, coming of age — inasmuch as a six-year old can come of age — while on the run in rural Uzbekistan, under the protection of a Japanese samurai/spy and a composer marked for having hidden code in his music. The fourth novel gave us Sophie, estranged from her parents, in the company of her samurai/spy tutor, and in her thirteen-year-old view, her future husband and lover (though she wasn't sure what the latter implied...exactly). Readers will recall the final chapter of the fourth novel, "Xanthia River," which spoils the readers with a touching reconciliation between Sophie and her parents, which is soon followed by their deaths.

"Depression" presents us with a sixteen-year-old Sophie Martoné, suffering from clinical depression that has obtained from both her underlying emotional problems and the loss of her parents. Depressed, Sophie is listless and mentally vulnerable, which makes her a prime target for interrogators who want information she may or may not have about her late parents. The secrets in question will not lead to the end of the world if they're discovered, but the skill of Anderson & Beckstein's writing is such that their plot doesn't need a catastrophe to be compelling reading. This is a refreshing change from the typical spy/action novel, especially of late, and "Depression" is all the more powerful for it.

The conceit of "Depression" is the stubborn inquisitor whose assumed name is Jack Ketch, the ancient moniker of the hangman. Jack, with his one-track mind, is convinced that the only way to reliably get information from a person is through the application of electricity. But he is all too clever by half, and he ends up giving Sophie the electroshock therapy that releases her from her prison of depression, if only temporarily. When he puts her into a temporarily-healed state, he learns that she wicked foe who enjoys a lifetime apprenticeship in being a super-spy of the James Bond variety.

With this plot established, the novel follows the cycles of depression, electrical torture, temporary cure, escape, depression, and so on, that describes the unfolding of the story. This leitmotif is neither boring nor repetitive, but instead lays out a rhythm that makes the novel all the more enjoyable.

The authors of "Depression" have done their homework, and only a psychopath could envy the research they must have done to make their torture not believable but realistic. Even more impressive how they've incorporated the fact that torture just doesn't work very well, and at the same time they've given compelling reason to believe that Jack is successful enough to keep his position of authority. Their research into mental disorders like depression is refreshing as well; even though the electrical torture qua therapy is an Olympian leap of faith, the rest of the story makes this suspension of disbelief an easy task.

As usual in the "Blue Dagger" series, the nature or origin of the villains is more a McGuffin than anything else. The pleasure is in the dialog, in the adventures, and in trying to figure out the plot. Here Anderson & Beckstein deliver as they always have: combining his scholarship in the classics and her scholarship in logic, they weave a tale where plot twists are exist only for those who cannot figure them out in advance. And I reckon, those who can solve the puzzles on the first try are few.

In conclusion, "Depression: A Buyer's Guide" is a delightful and challenging addition to the "Blue Dagger" series. Sophie truly comes of age in this novel, and she reminds us of our own weaknesses and flaws.


John said...

I such a loser, I actually looked up Dogwood on Amazon.

Charcoal Angel said...

I like what you do here--review books. I was considering doing a similar thing for my blog.

Thoughtful Review Guy said...

john, I'll take that as a compliment! Thanks!

charcoal angel, go for it. It's hard to think up imaginary books sufficiently insane to make for fun reviews. I wish you luck!