The God Killer, published in 1991, is the third in Simon (R.) Green’s series of Hawk and Fisher novels, following on from Hawk and Fisher itself and its sequel Winner Takes All, both of which I’ve already read.
Not a lot has changed.
As before, The God Killer sees buddy cops – more specifically married cops – Hawk and Fisher attempt to solve a baffling mystery in a generic epic fantasy city. This particular case takes them back to the disturbing, non-Euclidean geometries of the Street of Gods to investigate – and yes, the title sort of gives the game away a little – the case of someone seemingly going around killing Gods.
It is, to be honest, a frustrating novel, by a frustrating novelist – not because it’s rubbish, but because Green is clearly a talented and inventive writer who is for whatever reason not giving these books the attention they deserve. Perhaps it’s laziness, or the desire to make a quick buck. Perhaps it’s an imperative from his publishers: this is a brief, 200-page novel, and maybe that’s all he was told he could get published. Maybe he’d rather be writing something else. Or maybe, on the contrary, this is his comfort writing. But for whatever reason, the result is rushed and at times ungainly.
Indeed, there is something almost skeletal about procedings. The core of the novel is a cleverly-constructed murder mystery – not, to be sure, anything remarkable in ingenuity, but a solid whodunnit. Onto this scaffolding, Green straps a number of effective scenes – vignettes, we might call them – ranging from emotive character moments to exciting chase scenes, eyeball-kicks and glimpses of horror. So what, you might ask, has gone wrong? Why am I left less than wholly satisfied?
Because too little attention has been paid to the mechanics. To the, as it were, business. To get from one vignette to another – to move along that skeleton of mystery – consequently requires some clunky transitions. These transitions are much too fast to maintain the serious mood, and too often involve giant infodumps, and conversations that amount to nothing more than repeating what is aleady known. This probably would be less noticeable if Green were better at dialogue to begin with; unfortunately, it’s already his weak point – not paper-thin, but not solid enough, natural enough, complex enough to bear the weight placed upon it here.
To put it charitably, there was something about this that reminded me of Isaac Asimov: a wonderfully inventive writer, and not unable to compose a compelling scene here or there, but a writer with a bad habit of moving the plot along through infodumps, and conversations that are too transparently there to move the plot along.
But let’s step back a moment and remind ourselves of what Green isn’t bad at. First of all, there’s the mystery element. I’m no fan of the genre, at least in written form, and some of the weakness of the novel can be put down to the inherent weakness of the genre: when your climax is, by its very nature, a lecture from one character explaining what has been going on, it’s hard to really build effective suspense. The mystery itself, meanwhile, is perhaps too straightforward – enough to intrigue, but never puzzle. It is, in that regard, less intellectually satisfying than the cleverness of the Agatha-Christie-in-Waterdeep Hawk and Fisher. On the other hand, I did find the process of the investigation both more streamlined than in Hawk and Fisher (far fewer scenes of Hawk and Fisher recapping to one another!) and more coherent than in Winner Takes All.
In particular, reading The God Killer led me to muse on the unfashionable advantages of the relatively omniscient narrator. It allows the author to tease the reader more explicitly, compared to the modern style of a narrator closely pinned to the limited point of view of a particular character. It is, as it were, a more inherently theatrical style of narration: where the modern narrator calls to mind a magician studiously announcing she has nothing up her sleeve, the omniscient style is like a magician who begins her act by pulling scarf after rainbow scarf from every sleeve and pocket. The latter may preface a more superficial and less intellectually rigorous act… but at times, it sure can be entertaining. In this case, Green’s less austere style of narration allows us to pop from time to time into the heads, even for extended passages, of other characters, including prime suspects – he teases us with how much he shows without us grasping what’s really going on, as character’s minds reveal suspicious elements, while skating around the edge of the thoughts that would settle things for us one way or another. To taunt the reader in this way makes for a fundamentally unfair narration – the author knows more than us and is happy to rub it in – but it also makes for plenty of suspense, and satisfying twists and red herrings.
It’s an element that reminded me strongly of Terry Pratchett – another author who, even more than Green, prefers the old-fashioned style of storytelling, and who at times gracefully teases us with glimpses, puzzles and forebodings. Indeed, it’s a comparison it’s impossible not to make – and not to Green’s advantage. In their use of a light-hearted ‘parallel history’ fantasy world as the setting for a murder mystery, Green’s Hawk and Fisher tales call to mind nothing more strongly than Pratchett’s Watch novels. Green’s Haven is only marginally removed from Pratchett’s early Ankh-Morpork (though likely not for reasons of imitation: Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! was published only a year before Hawk and Fisher), and the similarities don’t stop there: in particular, Hawk and Fisher could quite comfortably enjoy sitting down with kindred souls in Vimes and Angua.
Green also shares one of Pratchett’s most valuable talents – or, perhaps, ideologies: a humanistic eye for pitiable human weakness. Almost all of Green’s characters are on some level pathetic – pathetically human and real. In portraying character, he homes in on weaknesses and disadvantages – encourages us to pity and to empathise. The approach was particularly striking here by contrast with the last novel I read, Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself: both novels have background characters who are little more that entertaining caricatures, but where those in Abercrombie’s book are held up for mockery and disgust, and hence quickly wear out their welcome, those in Green’s novel are put at our mercy to inspire sympathy in us. I was struck, for example, by Green’s description of a minor nobleman, a perennial drunkard. Abercrombie would have pointed and laughed at his absurdity, his red nose, his stupid utterances; he’d have made him ‘squawk’ and ‘splutter’ his lines. Green devotes only a paragraph of description to him, but gently lays out his past (an unwanted, overlooked third child thrust into wealth by a series of family tragedies), sighs over his psychology and way of dealing with the world (having never had the opportunity to develop self-esteem or a sense of purpose, he has spent five years trying to drink himself to death for want of anything better to do with his life), and then makes us feel bad for him by putting him in a minor way at the mercy of Our Hero: Hawk smiles and nods at him with professional getting-information pleasantness, and the poor man smiles back uncertainly, very used, we are told, to being greeted as a friend by people he neither recognises nor remembers (no one is as popular as a drunk man with money, and it’s not as though the poor guy remembers much of what happens to him anyway).
OK, it’s not a deep psychoanalysis. It doesn’t have to be, it’s a one-paragraph off-hand introduction to a minor supporting character. But it instantly establishes an emotional bond that I felt Abercrombie often failed to establish even with more substantial recurring characters: and I think that it’s because, as Pratchett also does so often, Green seeks out something we can feel sorry for in the man, rather than something for us to hate or mock.
And yet, as I say, comparison to Pratchett isn’t entirely a good thing here, because the comparison is mostly “not as good as”. Green attempts humour, but is nowhere near as funny as Pratchett. Green’s characters, whether central or peripheral, lack the brilliant adumbration Pratchett brings to his. Green’s plot, perhaps, is more coherent than in many of Pratchett’s whodunnits, but is undermined by an over-casual approach to process and business – whereas almost every scene in Feet of Clay shines in one way or another. Green can write some pretty lines now and then, but he doesn’t match Pratchett’s quality as a prose stylist. In almost every way, Green (at least in ‘Hawk and Fisher’ mode) feels like an answer to what Pratchett would be like if Pratchett weren’t a genius.
The most egregious of these limitations is perhaps in the area of worldbuilding. Green doesn’t so much botch it as not even try: Haven is almost entirely a generic fantasy city with the details filed off, and this may be intentional. This extends to what I’ve labelled above the “parallel history” approach. While most modern urban fantasy – including a half-dozen later series by Green – assume either a “secret history” (wizards live among us but it’s a secret only certain people know about) or an “alternate history” (wizards live among us and everybody knows it, though it’s had surprisingly little effect on the development of what is recognisably our own world), Green like Pratchett adopts what I would term a “parallel history”: Haven, like Ankh-Morpork, is not our world, but many things seem suspiciously similar, even if for seemingly different reasons. Just as Vimes can employ a camera (with an imp inside that paint really, really quickly), Haven’s cops, for example, can call up a SWAT team (that’s Special Wizardry and Tactics, obviously). Pratchett uses this to great effect, carefully judging which elements to include to create a setting that makes internal sense while at the same time satirising our own world. Green seems to do it for a cheap laugh, or for narrative convenience, and there is little exploration of how this world differs from either our own or from less ‘realistic’ fantasies. The result is not exactly incoherent – there isn’t enough worldbuilding to pinpoint any clear incoherence in it – but it feels slapdash, and undermines the suspension of disbelief. If I don’t understand the world’s nature, how can I fully invest in the dilemmas of that world – without really knowing, for instance, what escape routes might be possible, or what consequences might unfold from something?
However, in fairness, The God Killer suffers less in this regard than Winner Takes All. Green does try to put everything plot-relevent on the table early on, and more generally the emphasis on the intentionally weird Street of Gods – which almost seems to anticipate the beautiful chaos of Planescape’s Sigil by three years – enables Green to bring more distinctive colour to his world (or, at least, to a small part of it) than in the earlier books. Indeed, while it perhaps lacks the great idea at the core of the original Hawk and Fisher, The God Killer can be regarded as an improvement on the earlier two novels in almost every respect: the mechanics are dealt with more adroitly, the characterisation is better, there are more stand-out scenes, the worldbuilding is better… it’s just better. And it forces us to ask what we really want from fiction. Because, sure, this isn’t great literature, but it was a genuinely fun read. I’d have liked it to be longer and deeper, but as it was… it was fun.
Perhaps it’s just because of the whodunnit angle, but this really reminded me of something like CSI (the original, not the knockoffs). Sure, it’s not The Wire. It’s not searing and harrowing, and won’t tell you anything new about either humanity or the capabilities of fiction. It’s not even, say, Breaking Bad, which is maybe what Abercrombie and the like are aiming at. It’s not a ponderous epic; it doesn’t thrill to the bone, or bring out the tears.
But does it have to? CSI was massively popular without doing all that… and, honestly, seen with an unjaded eye (and again, we’re talking the original here) it was actually pretty good. It turned out a short, entertaining little mystery to fill a slow hour, and when it was at its best it could earn a laugh here, an empathetic sigh there, and now and then a respectful nod when it did something clever. What’s so wrong with that? Better something that knows what it is and presents itself well, than something that tries for the stars and ends up face-first in the dust.
So, despite the novel’s petty frustrations, I’d recommend it. Not to everybody, to be sure. Not to most people, really. But if you enjoy fantasy, but don’t need to take it too seriously, and particularly if you appreciate a little brain-teaser on occasion, and you’re looking for something fun and enjoyable and a little different but aren’t demanding high literature or anything genre-revolutionising, you could go a lot worse than investing in the couple of hundred pages of The God Killer.
[And not to harp upon the point, but… yeesh. I’d forgotten how much darker and grimmer and gorier fantasy could be before Grimdark took over! The God Killer doesn’t get into exploitative territory, but it also doesn’t mess about…]
OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. I wouldn’t quite go so far as calling it a “good” book per se – my standards for that are quite high, and, unlike genuinely good books, this is pretty much just a novel for Those Who Like This Sort Of Thing. But it doesn’t fall far from that mark, in my opinion. If only he’s spent a little longer on it…