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The House of Dust

Paul Johnston

Hodder and Stoughton

UK Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0340766123

406 Pages; £16.99 ($40.00)

Date Reviewed: 02-07-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002



Mystery, Science Fiction, Horror

02-11-02, 08-22-02

Fiction set in the future is usually "futuristic". Paul Johnston's series of novels set in Edinburgh featuring detective Quintilian "Quint" Dalrymple is definitely an exception. Although Johnston's Edinburgh of the 2020's is a city-state based in the ideals set forth in Plato's Republic, it is anything but ideal. The citizens have sacrificed freedom for safety, and are practically slaves who live a squalid existence to serve the wealthy tourists. Usually it's a city without crime, but when something bad happens the city leaders -- who call themselves Guardians -- call upon Quint. At one time he was a member of the 'Iron Boy Scouts' called the Guardsmen who police the city. But he was forced to leave in disgrace, and now is called upon only when the odd and usually horrific murder happens in the "Perfect City". In previous outings he's dealt with serial killers, pollution, corruption, drug runner, and well-meaning evildoers from the city of Glasgow. Johnston uses his creation to deploy an odd but effective mix of heavy-handed satire and heavy-duty down-and-dirty detective stories. His stories revolve around the social and political differences in his future, not the technological ones. For all that they're set in the future, the Quintilian Dalrymple books have thus far not been what is usually thought of as 'science fiction'. 'The House of Dust' takes the first small but very successful steps in that direction. The result is the best book yet in the very original series.

'The House of Dust' begins as Edinburgh faces a mounting crime wave. For the first time, the Guardians have built a prison, with help from the consultants in the city of New Oxford. But at the opening ceremony, a Guardian is shot. Quint is called in to find the perpetrator, with his perpetual sidekicks Davie, a goofy Guardsman who has moved up in the ranks as Quint has been exiled from them, and Katherine, his cranky on-and-off girlfriend. As they examine the evidence, they find that technopolis of New Oxford is inextricably intertwined with the assassination. Johnston does a great job of pulling Quint and his companions from their familiar squalid settings to the hushed, high-tech city of the future. As he delves into the machinery behind the wonders the city of New Oxford offers Edinburgh, Quint finds a hellish reality. Each step of the way, his caustic political satire etches an acid-burned comment on today's realities and tomorrow's results. As a result, the ugliness at the center of the story is eminently believable and really ugly. It's also an excellent mystery that succeeds in keep the reader informed and guessing up until the big-screen dénouement.

But Johnston's skills keep the novel from being a mere exercise in excess. By now his characters have a fair amount of depth to them, and the reader is pleased to see all the sideline characters from the previous novels make an appearance here. He displays the same flair for satiric technological invention that he does for social innovation. The torments his future offers are very imaginative, yet familiar enough to strike a chord in the reader. And, most importantly, this is a really thrilling thriller. Johnston is able to place his characters in easily envisioned scenes and move them around so that the story unfolds smoothly, with special effects only a movie of the mind can achieve. While it does take a certain kind of reader to appreciate his novels, Johnston is definitely an original writer with a unique vision. For those who wish to see his future, and enjoy his commentary on the present -- 'The House of Dust' is a great sign of things to come.