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Incompetence by Rob Grant
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz (UK) HCVR  ISBN/ITEM#: 0575074191
Date: 31 December, 2003 List Price 12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

In a near future European Union, bureaucracy reigns supreme -- actually, that could be said of the European Union today, but Rob Grant's new novel extrapolates this premise to the extreme. In his United States of Europe, political correctness runs amuck. It is illegal to prohibit somebody employment on the grounds of race, religion, sex, or competence. Consequently the most unsuitable people qualify for all sorts of jobs -- airline pilots with vertigo, blind nightclub bouncers and eighty year old male lap dancers in bunny outfits.

Against this backdrop, Grant's protagonist, Harry Salt (though he goes by any number of names and identities) works for some sort of covert investigative organization. Salt finds himself on the trail of one Johnny Appleseed, a serial killer with an overactive imagination and an eccentric modus operandi, and it's not at all clear what Appleseed's motives might be. What is clear though, is that he wants Harry Salt involved in the case up to his eyeballs and so Incompetence follows Harry's exploits as he acts upon the clues laid down (deliberately) before him. As a plot, it isn't at all sophisticated, but it is clear from the off that this novel is much more a platform for Grant's sharp humor than it is a detective story.

I can't help feeling though, that we've seen all this before. On the one hand, Grant, the creator of Red Dwarf, is no doubt sharp and funny and often silly, but given the context of the novel, a comic sleuth story, it doesn't even hold a candle to, say, Douglas Adams' two Dirk Gently novels, or Martin Scott's excellent Thraxas stories.

The reason for this lies in the epigrammatic style of Grant's writing. The relentless, rapid fire one liners do indeed get the novel off the ground, but then the whole book remains very much on a plateau throughout. There are no stylistic highs or lows in Incompetence, and the reader does deserve a little variation along the way. Certainly many of Grant's observations are very funny indeed, but he tends to labor many a moment to the point where the joyful and humorous aspects just disappear under the sheer volume of gags - and it's often the same gag repeated ad nauseam. At one point in Incompetence, there is a whole chapter devoted to a Paris dinner party at which the guests are all poisoned. What begins as an amusing (if mildly distasteful) relaying of events soon develops into a symphonic account so obsessed with vomit that it makes the Mister Creosote scene in Python's The Meaning of Life seem like Bambi in comparison.

It may be that Grant wants some sort of reaction to this from his readers, but other than making me feel queasy, the joke simply palls long before the end of the chapter. This is the case with much of this novel. It is labored and self-consciously deliberate in too many places and as we never really get to know who the protagonist is, or what it is that he does, or even what he actually looks like, it's kind of hard to give a toss. Likewise at the climax of the book there is a clumsy diatribe of socio-political anti-Americanism that is not at all a welcome inclusion for the reader. It's bad bond villain stuff and it just doesn't work here.

So, is Incompetence a novel that lives up to its title? I won't go that far! To be fair it is damn funny in places and if you like Grant's take on things, you'll doubtless be happy as Larry reading it. But sadly and disappointingly, it just wasn't like that for me.

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