Yesterday, I read Liz Williams' (mevennen) The Snake Agent, which was published by Nightshade Books in hardcover last year, and has just been released in paperback.
Billed as Detective Inspector Chen novel, Snake Agent is set in Singapore Three, and the officer in charge of dealing with the supernatural (and consequently Hell), the aforementioned Inspector Chen. Chen, described as an anonymous man with "a round, ordinary face [that] seemed as bland and inexpensive as the moon," has, in his person, a lingering "inner darkness" that reveals his connection to Hell, and which results in people stepping aside from him on the streets, and his fellow officers wave blessing paper over the coffee machine when he has finished with it. In photographs, a faint red smudge appears around his head.
Williams' Chen is a quietly fascinating figure, caught between trying to please his goddess, do his job, and live with his wife aboard their houseboat. If you removed his connection to Hell, Chen would be an ordinary, over worked cop, and that is his greatest strength. In crafting Chen, Williams reduced the interaction with Hell, the conversations with his goddess, and the problems with his wife, to that trials that are ordinary, and almost mundane for him in their occurrence. With Chen's matter of fact eye--one which tries to limit its judgment of those around him--the minute detail of Williams' world of Singapore Three is allowed to unfold.
Snake Agent's strength as a novel rises from its setting, Singapore Three. An alternate Singapore, there is a palpable sense of the real Singapore running through it, and the city exists, strongly, for the reader. The second location of the novel, Hell, is likewise well crafted, mirroring Singapore Three for its heat, and general design. Perhaps the only weakness in Williams' Hell is that it is not particularly Hellish. The demons inside it, while not presented as Evil, with the capital E, are presented as beings who murder and betray without pause, but Williams doesn't really present that. Yes, the plot of the novel does hang on betrayals in Hell, but there's no real sense of it being cut-throat and wild and the place a human would get butchered five steps in. There is no sense, basically, that when Chen walks into Hell, despite having a price on his head, despite not being in favour of his goddess, that he is in any danger.
The storyline of Snake Agent has been built out of the short story 'Adventures in the Ghost Trade', originally published in Interzone and reprinted in Williams collection The Banquet of the Lords of Night and Other Stories. It takes the simple story there of a dead girl not going to Heaven, and her mother's worry, and places it in a larger conspiracy that is linked to the various departments at work in Hell. Perhaps the greatest criticism of the novel is, in fact, that it is not much of a mystery, and therefor not much of a detective novel. It's pretty easy to figure out the basic details of the mystery regarding Hell, and once Chen himself finds out, Williams engages in the regrettable conceit of having the character know something, but not the reader. She doesn't engage in it for long, but I would have been happy if she just hadn't done it in the first first place, really, since I regard it as one of those cheats in narrative--especially in prose, where the reader's experiences are so connected to the internal monologue of the character. Unlike a film or a TV show, it is jarring not to be told the information when Chen finds the final clue (as it is).
The other problem with the book is that, in the final fifty pages, it becomes increasingly clear that there is too much going on to finish with satisfaction. I thought, really, that another fifty, maybe sixty pages were needed to give each of the characters their moment, and to not have everything happen in the mash that it does. Yeah, the book does end, and it does tie up the majority of its plot elements, but certain things are short changed in this: Inari, Chen's wife, is the one who suffers the most in this, and it unfortunately ends up placing her as an unnecessary character in the overall book. This despite the fact that she is, actually, quite interesting, and I think, deserving of slightly a bit more time. Likewise, the final scene regarding the Hell vice squad cop, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, feels tacked on at the end, and I think could have been left for the opening of the next volume, so that Williams could have given us a final scene between Inari and Chen, and allowed for all the time she has spent developing their relationship have a final, quiet moment on which to end the novel.
Still, with all things said and done, Snake Agent makes a nice, light piece of reading. It isn't as stylish or cool as Raymond Chandler's Marlowe books, but the comparison, in form at least, is there, and just as with Chandler the point of the books are not the storyline, but experience of Marlowe, and his tour through various locations, most notably LA, Williams Detective Inspector Chen is about seeing the complex, detailed world of her imagination unfold before his gaze, and the common, almost ordinary way in which he cuts open the palm of his scarred hands to cast a spell.
Yeah, remember how I said I would talk (or review) the books I read here? Yeah, me too.