David Martin enjoys the debut novel by a York musician which explores big ideas with a black sense of humour
DOUBT by Ryan Shirlow
In a not-too-distant mildly dystopian future (it’ll probably be out of date by next Tuesday at the present rate of economic meltdown) the social fabric is crumbling amid futile protests and demonstrations by the once-aspirational citizens of an extremely squeezed middle.
Meanwhile, minor police functionary Andy Maginnis, nursing a last glimmer of youthful idealism, is trying to make a name for himself in a disenchanted and down-at-heel corner of the intelligence services, who try to keep tabs on the proliferating protest groups.
Andy, a Scots-Irish 20-something with a troubled family backstory, lonely and out of his comfort zone in post-crash London, soon becomes fascinated by one particular religious organisation and is dangerously drawn to both the beautiful Tabitha Simmonds and the sect’s charismatic leader Howard Price.
Soon he’s compromised and, along the way uncovers both a government conspiracy and, most frighteningly, the true nature of the Doubt, the crippling psychological malaise which is really affecting society.
The debut novel by former punk musician-turned-police intelligence analyst Ryan Shirlow is a swine to categorise. It’s essentially a thriller, written in a no-frills, dialogue-heavy style, and driven by a growing sense of inevitable doom about the hole Andy’s digging for himself.
It’s leavened with flashes of dark humour, some striking images and a distinctive Celtic-tinged, profanity-heavy first-person narrative voice. It also nods at science fiction and “weird fiction” – one of the supporting cast is an unfortunate former TV paranormal expert and UFO buff named Colin Seymour, Andy’s fallen childhood hero.
And it even escalates into philosophical territory, raising questions of the nature of faith, doubt and reason. Can faith be reduced to a scientific explanation? Is science itself an act of faith? Even the Dawkins-esque champion of reason Professor Fortrum ultimately suffers the deadening effects of the Doubt.
This short novel manages to just about pull it off. The no-nonsense prose actually helps it to wear its big ideas lightly, amid a story that’s basically about a young man, haunted by guilt, who spends a lot of time drinking, swearing and pondering the big questions with his equally confused friends – and a girl he’s strangely fascinated by – which is enough of an archetypal plot to keep things on the road.
It may draw upon the writer’s police past rather than his musical one, but perhaps the best analogy is of an intriguing debut by a new band that, despite occasional muddy production and wobbly tuning, stands out from the demo pile with that unmistakable spark of an original sound taking shape and hinting at where its imagination can take it.
You’d make damn sure you got along to their next gig.
Recommended, and a writer worth keeping an eye on.