I recently got this book back after loaning it out to someone at work, so I went ahead and re-read it during the next couple of commutes. I’ve been a fan of Matt Ruff for a while, ever since Amazon suggested that I might like “Sewer, Gas, and Electric”. SG&E is hard to classify, but personally I’d put it in the criminally underserved SF humor category alongside books like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or “The Android’s Dream” by John Scalzi. I really enjoy it and have recommended it to a fair number of people, who tend to either like it or find it far too silly. Since it is silly, that’s probably a fair critique. After all, you either like that sort of thing or you don’t, but for what it is it’s done well.
Anyway, I’m a completionist at heart and thus got around to reading all of Ruff’s other books eventually. “Bad Monkeys” is my favorite of the lot and is, if anything, even harder to classify than SG&E is. It’s got a lot of fantastical elements, but takes the format of a police procedural, and it’s got a lot of action and thriller elements in it while also maintaining a sense of pitch-black humor.
Most of the humor comes through the observations of the protagonist, Jane Charlotte. As the novel opens she’s cooling her heels in the psychiatric wing of a jail in Clark County, Nevada. She’s in jail because she has just been arrested for killing a man by the name of Dixon. In fact, she freely admits to the detectives that she’s guilty. As to why she’s in the psych ward, she also maintains that she’s an operative for a clandestine secret organization that’s dedicated to fighting evil, specifically the division officially entitled “Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons”, unofficially “Bad Monkeys”. And yes, she’s aware that humans are great apes, not monkeys. That sort of nitpicking is the sort of thing she’s been putting up with from her brother Phil her whole life.
There’s a friendly, somewhat skeptical psychiatrist in the cell with her and the majority of the novel follows her explanation of how she ended up where she currently is. Ruff mentioned “Homicide” by David Simon as one of his influences on this novel, and it shows – that book examined a group of Baltimore homicide detectives and gave details on how police interrogations typically go, as naive individuals try to tell the detectives a story that will minimize their involvement, explain their motivations, or simply exculpate them entirely. Clever and/or experienced criminals don’t say anything at all, and since it quickly becomes clear that Jane is both, the reader begins to wonder what, exactly, she’s attempting to achieve with her confession here.
This is the point where Ruff’s other influences show up. Jane Charlotte and her brother Phil are shout-outs to the famous author Philip K. Dick, and like many of Dick’s works this book gets seriously strange pretty fast. In addition to the names and themes, the replicant detector test is borrowed from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, since the organization has a machine somewhat like a lie detector that, under interrogation, can tell whether someone is evil or not.
It’s pretty clear from the beginning that Jane Charlotte isn’t trustworthy, and in fact she’ll tell you as much herself. Of course there’s something strangely reassuring about someone claiming to be untrustworthy, and Ruff uses that for all it is worth.
Jane explains that her first encounter with the organization occurred when she was still in high school, when she became convinced that one of the school staff was a serial killer. According to her, she was right, and she eventually received assistance to kill him in self defense. When the psychiatrist looks up the details he confirms part of her story, but notes that the guy in question died of natural causes. At this point Jane explains the Natural Cause gun used by the organization, which also has a bunch of other neat toys – near-ubiquitous surveillance, constant communication, and a large staff of selfless, incorruptible agents who tirelessly fight evil wherever it’s to be found. Jane’s not recruited immediately but she eventually gets pulled down the rabbit hole into a strange world of espionage and assassination. For even the organization isn’t omniscient and they’ve got an ancient enemy, a counterpart evil organization currently going by the name of the Troop, whose agents have access to everything the organization does and who seek to create evil in the world. As to how the Troop manages to survive as a coherent group of people who are simply devoted to doing evil for no particular reason, they may be working for Satan, or maybe they just do it for fun.
Jane’s amusing enough, but she’s clearly a sociopath and her attempts to make herself look better often don’t work all that well. Sometimes she doesn’t even try to put positive spin on her behavior. She lies to the psychiatrist about various things, she relates to the psychiatrist times when she lied to the organization about various things, and she is pretty quick to resort to violence. The reader gets the sense that the organization needs people like her who don’t have any particular scruples for their wet work (they fight evil, not crime as such), but at the same time they don’t seem like such a good fit. Jane’s bad at following orders and often makes stupid mistakes which work out poorly for the organization. We find out that the murdered Dixon was in the organization’s equivalent of Internal Affairs and didn’t like Jane very much, for what even Jane can’t deny are pretty good reasons.
In any event, the narration follows Jane through training and a couple of missions before the last mission that ended up with her in jail in Nevada. That last one has a couple of really well-described fight scenes and some good tension as well. It all comes back to the jail cell, though. Does she really expect to be safe from such a powerful organization in an ordinary Nevada jail? Why did she kill Dixon? Is she trustworthy at all? At the end, will any of this make sense? In the end this novel really delivers with a powerful and probably unexpected ending that nonetheless plays 100% fair with what the reader’s been told. It holds up on repeat reading and given the many layers of deceit going on actually lends itself to various interpretations. After all, there’s plenty that goes on in the world that Jane doesn’t know about.
If you’re looking for a treatise on good and evil, this isn’t the book – it doesn’t deal with edge cases and neither the good nor evil organization is especially plausible. But as far as a page-turner that delivers on a mind screwing tale, this is a good read.