Map of Blue Book Balloon

7 November 2020

Review - The Evidence by Christopher Priest

Cover by Tomás Almeida

The Evidence
Christopher Priest
Gollancz, 15 October 2020
Available as: HB, 312pp, audio, e
Source: Copy bought from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9781473231399

For me, a new novel by Christopher Priest is always an Event and this one had me awake till after midnight: I couldn't stop till I'd finished it.

The Evidence takes us back to the Dream Archipelago, in a story that plays with - and critiques - the rules of detective fiction, as well as taking in feudalism, the world financial system and the literary scene.

Todd Fremde is a successful crime writer, living a comfortable life on the island of Salay Raba, the fourth: a warm and pleasant place, if overrun in parts by financiers and bankers. Certainly a world away from the bitterly cold and industrialised nation of Dearth, where he's gone to give a talk on "The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime Free Society". This gives Priest a wonderful lunch for the story as we follow the slightly nervous and peevish Fremde on his journey - a two day sleeper ride across Dearth, with a flight beforehand. I'm not a natural traveller and I slightly sympathised with Fremde's niggling concerns - about missing connections, being late, having to travel as advised with extra bulky, thermal clothing, missing his usual routines - while also thinking: two days closeted in a sleeper cabin - what an opportunity to catch up on the reading! At the same time, there are some oddities slipped into the story, and if you read Priest's last Dream Archipelago story, The Gradual, you may feel that the central figure, an artist despatched on a lengthy cultural jaunt, may be something of an innocent abroad, likely to run into all sorts of trouble.

As he does, and there is an element of SF to it, with the mysterious "mutability" which nobody can quite explain but which notices in Fremde's hotel room warn him about - but Priest's writing here almost makes it just one of things that you have to cope with in a foreign business trip. A strange foreign law, perhaps, a way of living, in a distant city, that you don't quite grasp, like the peculiarities of the Metro pricing. Certainly not something to worry about much. Especially not when a senior member of the local police (in a crime free society?) takes an interest in you, and insists on telling you about a strange case she was once involved with.

To begin with, Fremde hates that attention. He's already discussed the philosophy of the crime novel - the aspects which are deliberately unrealistic, the things one avoids as passé (the locked room, twins, the "perfect crime"), features of the market which drive the writing one way or another. Now (and here Priest writes with perceptible feeling) we get that horror of horrors for a writer, the fan who wants to suggest an Idea which surely only needs to written up to make a novel. As well as the palpable sense of unease from Fremde's travails in a foreign land, the book now picks up a dash of humour as Fremde has to try and control his annoyance. Eventually, though, he does become interested in the story he's being told - not so much as material, more from the nature of what he hears, and its connection to his homeland. Can it be a coincidence that he was invited to Dearth in the first place?

What follows is best not described in detail - that would spoil the enjoyment of the plot, which contains many little moments of recognition. I will only say that Fremde's life, and the sort of fiction he writes, seem to be crossing over - at many levels - as a result of his visit to Dearth. The concept of mutability becomes important - Fremde relates it to his writing (what's more mutable than fiction?) but it also proves to have real-world effects, serious ones for Todd and for his island.

In the background, this is the same Dream Archipelago we've become familiar with, the endless war between the two Northern states gridding on and escapees from their conscript crimes. In keeping with the detective theme, we also meet a grizzled ex-policeman with secrets (he, also, keeps trying to foist Ideas on Fremde) and another cop who never travels without an assault rifle. There are written confessions, obfuscated records and hints of a cover-up. 

It's an immensely enjoyable book where - in keeping with Fremde's theory of crime writing - the point is less to discover what happened, even where that seems to depend on the most outrageous of crime writing conventions, still less to establish guilt, but to tease out the relationships and personalities involved, to become acquainted with participants and come to know them.

Which is all very well, but there are people it's better not to be acquainted with...

I simply loved this book. It will appeal to the crime enthusiast, the SF reader, followers of Christopher Priest's fiction (onvioulsy) and those who enjoy an intelligent novel where all isn't as it seems.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.