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Body Politic

Paul Johnston

Hodder & Stoughton / Hodder Headline

UK Hardcover

ISBN 0-340-69490-4

Publication Date: 07-03-1997

250 Pages; £16.99


Body Politic

Paul Johnston

St. Martin's Press

US Hardcover

ISBN 0-312-20279-2

Publication Date: 08-01-1999

272 pages; $22.95


Date Reviewed: 08-08-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Mystery, Science Fiction, Horror

02-11-02, 08-22-02

Fiction set in the future is nearly always classified as science fiction. Presumably, the assumption is that the future will always involve significant change based on scientific advancement or, in some cases, regression. 'Body Politic', the debut novel by Paul Johnston only just manages to avoid the science fiction tag because it is so concerned with solving a string of gruesome murders. Otherwise the setting, Edinburgh in 2020, transformed into a city-state based on the letter of the law as set down in Plato's 'The Republic' would certainly qualify it as SF. Wouldn't it?

The joy of Johnston's vision of the future is that is devoid of the usual SF fixtures of nifty technology or apocalyptic disasters. Instead, Johnston's 2020 looks a lot the present, only dirtier, shabbier, cheaper and poorer. That sounds like a pretty realistic prediction. But it doesn't sound or read like much science fiction or any other genre for that matter. If anything, this is a mainstream dystopian novel with a very nasty streak. Johnston is an equal-opportunity distributor of cruelty. He dishes it out with glee and abandon. The end result is a novel where setting rivals plot and character for importance. And with a setting like Johnston's Edinburgh, 'Body Politic' becomes a very memorable novel.

Quintillian Dalrymple is a disgraced Guardsman in Edinburgh. Years ago, unable to capture the vicious killer who ended the life of his lover, he left the Guardians as the Perfect City descended into corruption and decay. In Edinburgh, everyone is provided for and the citizens all provide for the tourists who come to enjoy the year-round arts festival. The citizens live in positively Baltic poverty, with the exception of the corrupt leaders. When the first murder in five years is committed in the city, it threatens both the tourists and the government. The signs are all there; it looks as if the Ear, Nose and Throat Man has struck again. The man Quint failed to capture.

Dalrymple is a typically tough PI, a man who listens to old blues music on contraband cassette tapes. Accompanied by the green Guardsman Davie, who is sent to make sure that Dalrymple adheres to the letter of the law, Quint pursues his target through the troughs of the city. Johnston does extremely well when describing his Balkanized Scotland of the future. You practically want to wash your hands and shake the sand out of your shoes. You can smell the body odors of the unwashed citizens and feel the pasty food stuck to the roof of your mouth. Some readers will get so caught up in the setting that they might miss either the shortcomings or the pleasures of the rest of the novel.

On one hand, Quint is a typical PI, but Johnston has created such a vivid and unique milieu for him to move through that he manages to make it all seem new again. Davie also gets under the reader's skin with an infectious innocence and enthusiasm. The other Guardians and citizens quickly rank up in importance and memorability, but fall behind when compared to the setting. The plot involves Yet Another Serial Killer, a brutal mind whose crimes are described with surgical glee. It's certainly nothing to write home about, unless it happens in a really interesting and unique setting.

Johnston's Edinburgh qualifies. In 'Body Politic' he has crafted a very slick setting where he can dispense gritty realism and high-concept satire with equal ease and aplomb. He can relentlessly parody the excesses of capitalism and socialism, or poverty and wealth. He can slice out a kidney or serve a pie -- or both. He's created a character strong enough to survive in his dystopia, and a dystopia strong enough to survive at the edge of reality. In the novels that follow, Johnston does a fantastic job building up the edges and interiors of the edifice he constructs in this novel. 'Body Politic' may not be perfect, but it's damned good and very original. Maybe that's better than perfect -- and perhaps that's the point.