Cover of Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks
Christopher Brookmyre
343 pages
published in 2007

Picture Richard Dawkins with all his disdain for religion and new agery intact but a better sense of humour and a career as a thriller writer rather than a scientist and you have Christopher Brookmyre. Especially in his Jack Parlabane series, of which Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is the latest installment, religion and quackery are what motivates the villains with the hero being a rational atheist who makes sport from revealing the hypocrisy of religious authorities. At times this relentless hostility, no matter how well deserved does get a bit tedious even for me. If you're at all religious, Brookmyre is probably not your cup of tea.

With Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks Brookmyre shifts his focus slightly, from organised religion to quackery: spiritualism to be precise. Yes, it's Jack Parlabane versus those parasites on human misery, the douchebags who pretend to be able to contact the dead when all they have is a lack o shame and a talent for cold reading. Jack knows it's all nonsense, the dead are dead and there's no such thing as ghost but there's one niggling little detail: Jack has become a ghost himself. He's dead, fallen out of a four storey window and landed on his headm but he's still here narrating. How is that's possible? He doens't know but he knows he doesn't like it and certainly grudges having to admit that the Woo peddlers might just be right...

But of course things aren't quite what they seem; Brookmyre has put Jack into difficult situations before only to carefully extract him in the end. As with every Parlabane novel, the seemingly impossible turns out not to be so: the one really impossible thing to happen in the course of the novel (on page 124) is carefully explained on Brookmyre's website, if you hadn't figured it out for yourself.

The story starts with Jack becoming rector of Kelvin University. As such he becomes involved when the university's science department is pressured, by way of large sums of money to rigourously test the supposedly paranormal powers of noted television psychic Gabriel Lafayette. Lafayette is sponsored by furniture magnate Bryant Lemuel, source of the aforementioned large sums of money, who wants Kelvin university to instale a spiritual science chair. On the media side of things there's Jillian Noble tabloid columnist/wife to a prominent Labout politician, who has written a book about Lafayette, extracts of which are interleaved with Jack's much more cynical narration. On Jack's side there's Michael Loftus, science geek and wouldbe exposers of quacks, who also seems to cop it early in the book. At stake is the future of science education in Scotland. If Noble, Lafayette and Lemuel succeed in convincing Jack and the other investigators that Lafayette's powers are real, the door is wide open for mysticism to get an equal place in schools as proper science. As the creationist slogan has it, schools would be obliged to "teach the controversy".

As usual with Brookmyre there's a strong didactic streak in Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks. At times it seems Brookmyre spends as much time telling the story as he does explaining the history of spiritualism and why it's all one big fraud. I don't mind this myself, even if I did know most of this already, but it can be a bit of a turnoff if you expect just a nice juicy thriller.

Webpage created 15-11-2008, last updated 30-12-2008.