Since belatedly discovering Chris Brookmyre a couple of years ago, I’ve been burning my way through his backlist and appreciating the sheer range of his books, (although I must admit to a particular fondness for the anarchic earlier works).
In his last novel he returned to science fiction with the space noir Places in the Darkness, but Fallen Angel is a more character-driven thriller in the style of the recent Parlabane novels.
Four generations of the affluent and glamorous Temple family are on their way to their holiday home in the Algarve. This is apparently a celebration of the life of the recently departed Max, who dominated all their lives. Max was a media-savvy academic who specialised in the psychology of conspiracy theories.
However the Temple family was itself at the centre of such a theory after toddler Niamh Temple disappeared at the villa, believed drowned, on another family holiday 16 years earlier. This is the first time since then that the whole family has come away together.
Max’s widow, Celia is a former actor who was herself something of a cult figure, until Max’s fame eclipsed hers. The family have all come into contact with publicity and its distorting effect following the tragedy.
This is a complex, cleverly crafted book, taking in both the two timelines – the aftermath of Max’s death and the events surrounding Niamh’s disappearance all those years ago – and the points of view of all the major characters. As the family arrive at the villa, we also see them through the eyes of Amanda, a young nanny for the family at the neighbouring villa, herself an activist and YouTube vlogger. The reader is (intentionally) in the dark for a while, trying to work out the different relationships between the characters, and even who are the parents of Niamh.
This only adds to the suspense. This is a world where nothing is certain, where even established facts cannot be taken at face value, where a family of adept manipulators may or may not be lying to the world, to one another, or even to themselves.
The characterisation is subtle and layered and the family tensions are brilliantly evoked. This is a family which is outwardly shiny and successful but is full of secrets and dark dynamics (and of course the worst characters get the best lines).
As always with Chris Brookmyre, there are all the twists and tricks you expect from a crime novel, but there is something more. In Fallen Angel, the ‘more’ is a clever and timely examination of why we believe what we believe, and how evidence, reason and rationalism are easily trumped (pun intended) by people’s desire to be drawn into a good story, one that confirms their prejudices, explains their own unease, or even just entertains.
Why are conspiracy theories so powerful? Why are people drawn to them, and why are they so willing to overlook the feelings of those who get hurt? I also can’t help thinking that there are some parallels between crime fiction and conspiracy theories. In crime fiction you would never want the obvious, predictable suspect to be the killer, you want to believe that there’s a cleverly malevolent force at work. It’s when people apply that same impulse to real life that it gets tricky.
Fallen Angel is a page-turning thriller with smart, spiky characters and stylish locations. It’s also a powerful reminder of how, in the oversharing economy where we think we know everything, the power to beguile with a story, to create a public persona which obscures a private truth, is more potent than ever.
I received a copy of Fallen Angel from the publisher via Netgalley.