People are always telling me how dark Iain Banks’ writing is, so when I read my only previous example of his work, ‘The Crow Road’, I was surprised because it didn’t seem very dark at all. So when I found a copy of ‘Dead Air’ on a book sale stall at last year’s Crime and Publishment event, I was in two minds whether to pick it up or not. I did, but it languished on my ‘to be read’ pile for well over a year before I eventually took the plunge. And boy, what did I nearly miss.
It’s an amazing book. Well written, obviously, because this is Banks. Lots of wry humour. Characters that jump off the page after no more than half a dozen lines of dialogue. An intriguing recent-historical setting against the backdrop of global jitters following the attack on the World Trade Center. And yes, some much darker plot-lines as the main character, radio ‘shock-jock’ Ken, gets sucked into the murky shallows of organised crime almost without noticing.
What almost put me off reading the book was the mention of the Twin Towers – a harrowing event which, even the best part of 20 years later, I really don’t want to read about. However, in spite of a big mention in the book’s blurb, it hardly appears in the narrative, except as a constant background presence in much the same way as the late 90s cocaine culture. So I needn’t have worried after all.
I loved the main character, Ken. He was endearing but also irritating, a bit of a know-it-all but ultimately naïve. Watching him rush headlong into dangerous waters was like watching a good mate do something stupid; I found I was almost reading the pages between my fingers. But that shows how well-rounded a personality he was, and how much I cared. Other characters were great too. I’d have loved to see more of Ed, the verbally challenged, opinionated Black Best Friend with a penchant for saying ‘Wot?’, and Ken’s bantering, bickering relationship with his on-air producer Phil was a joy. Female characters were perhaps less well-drawn; Ken’s girlfriend Jo felt under-developed and even the main luurve interest Celia, a very untypical gangster’s moll and obviously a strong and characterful woman, had a tendency to turn into eye candy. A few too many physical descriptions of her amazing sexiness and beauty, perhaps. Then again, knowing Ken’s character, that’s probably what he would notice about her.
In the end I gave the book four stars on Goodreads. It would have been five plus, except for one section in the middle where all narrative vanished, replaced by a series of apparently disconnected fragments of dialogue between un-named characters. Some of them were obvious (Ed’s ‘wot’ for instance) but I never did work out who many of them were meant to represent – or what purpose they served. It was all rather confusing, and dragged me out of the story just when it was getting really interesting. An odd choice (by writer? or editor?) to leave that section in.
One or two readers have compared my books to Iain Banks and on the basis of ‘The Crow Road’ I couldn’t see why. However, reading ‘Dead Air’, I began to have a glimmer of what they meant. A focus on the people rather than the plot; on criminals or losers rather than a detective solving a crime. And some of the same dry gallows humour, perhaps. I could never hope to be as good as him, of course, but it’s nice to even be thought of in the same company!