Monday, December 03, 2007

Whack my bonobo

(Technically, this is “My mates’ scribbling #3” as I’ve known Penny Morgan for about as long as I can remember. But the title for this post is from Chris Morris and so is made of win.)

A fire at a laboratory near Southampton is not all it seems. The young woman apparently killed in the blaze turns out to have been murdered. The police soon realise she was not so much the target, as was the work she’d been doing. The lab is studying the intelligence of a bonobo ape called Caro, in the process attracting all kinds of enemies. There are the differently militant animal rights groups, there are those with vested interests. And there are those who have profound and heartfelt objections to any muddying of the line between humans and base animals…

As the investigation continues, it soon becomes clear that the case against the killer depends on the testimony of a single witness. But that witness is Caro.

This is, simply, a brilliant premise for a thriller, and Prime Witness plays out a riveting, twisty mystery. Along the way, there’s plenty of detail about criminal and legal procedure, about the mechanics of political careers versus lobbying, about studies of language and psychology, about what it’s like living with arthritis (as the police inspector does), and about how business dovetails with scientific research. You’re left with the impression that the author has read-up on every possible angle, that she’s ready for all possible objections to the radical thesis that apes are owed greater legal and social status because they think and feel like we do.
“‘The general consensus amongst most psychologists – and here I’m going to oversimplify drastically – is that bonobos like Caro are at a similar level, cognitively, to a four or five year old, ahead in some areas, lagging in others. Like children, they advance their knowledge as they grow, and those growing up in such an environment as Caro’s, flower. Conversely, those brought up in impoverished environments like those used in medical experiments, wither – as do deprived children. At the most privileged end of the scale lies “enculturation” with exposure to a human culture, producing what Steven Wise, an American animal rights lawyer, called “summer minds”.’”

Penny Morgan, Prime Witness, p. 352.

Penny’s good at weaving this scholarly knowledge unintrusively into the story, so that the specifics of this “small” and local murder investigation quickly escalate into something much larger and more profound. The cast swells as the plot reaches across the globe, too, and these are complex people with complex interactions, all with their own traits, perspectives and motivations.

It’s this that keeps us guessing about where the plot wwill turn next. There are several good red herrings, tangents based on what people are thinking at any given moment. Paul (the policeman) has a recurring thing for the doctor who injects him for tetanus; his daughter at one point late on in the book seems to be the next target of the killer. These wandering thoughts makes them seem more real; their lives a series of potential opportunities and decisions.

That said, characters sometimes use words or images that are too technical for who they are. That's especially true of an early scene from the perspective of Caro, where she seems to be fully conversant in psychological vocabulary. It’s my job at the moment to pick holes in first-time writers’ work, and to anticipate the kinds of criticism general readers might have. I’m also aware that Prime Witness has had to battle to see print.

With that in mind, were I the editor, I’d want more attention paid to whose perspective we’re in at any given moment, perhaps withholding detail and clarification because the character is more ignorant than the author. A good editor would also pick up on the inconsistent use of dashes and ellipses, and red-pen those bits with too many adverbs. Without wanting to give too much away, it might have made for a better revelation later had we not learnt straight away that Caro witnessed the murder. And I’m afraid one major character reminded me too much of The da Vinci Code.

But these are petty quibbles with a well-told and clever thriller that always kept me turning pages and even made me think. The end is genuinely moving, which proves how well the different characters and issues have been drawn. Those last few pages are brilliantly frustrating in not giving easy closure – and the characters left standing could easily, indeed should, return in further books.

Yes, if I were the editor and this had come to me, I’d be commissioning the next one.


Rob Stradling said...

There's an essay by Dawkins in which he rails against the human penchant for "discontinuous thinking", i.e. placing notional divisions where none necessarily exist; specifically regarding the relationship between Man and other animals.

What he doesn't address is how that cuts both ways. Must I stop squashing bugs because they are no different from humans - or can I slaughter humans with impunity because they are no different from bugs?

gczpyjt, I say.

Anonymous said...

I'll recommend this one to my friend who is interested in anthropology.