Every time I read something by Ian R McLeod I am reminded how much I enjoyed the last thing of his that I read. Yet somehow he is not a writer whose work I remember to actively seek out. I am not sure why this is except that he is what I would term a ‘quiet’ writer. His novels and short stories are well-crafted but they seem to be published without fanfare and are all too easily overlooked. On the up side, there is at least the pleasure of rediscovery.
Wake Up and Dream is McLeod’s sixth novel, his first since Song of Time, which won the 2009 Arthur C Clarke Award. It is set in Los Angeles in the 1930s, and features the ubiquitous down-at-heel private eye. This one is called Clark Gable; inevitably,the name alerts the reader to the fact that something is going on. My first thought was to sigh at the use of such a tired old gimmick but it says a lot for McLeod’s ingenuity and inventiveness that one quickly forgets about this; instead, the idea of Clark Gable, failed film star and washed-up PI seems entirely plausible. Indeed, one almost forgets that there is a world in which Clark Gable was a successful film actor. How does McLeod accomplish this feat? First, he has a very strong story, no matter the novelty of the PI’s name. Secondly, McLeod is particularly skilful in the way he constructs the novel’s alternative historical background. Thirdly, in terms of pacing, this is one of the most tightly controlled novels I’ve read in a while.
To start with the story: it is 1940, and Gable is contacted by one April Lamotte, who wants him to carry out a particularly unusual job. She wants him to impersonate her husband, a screenwriter, in order to facilitate the signing of a contract. Daniel Lamotte is, according to April Lamotte, currently suffering from a mental collapse and is sequestered in an highly exclusive nursing home. She needs Gable, who looks not unlike her husband, to impersonate him for a few hours, just to save the truth from coming out. Daniel Lamotte hasn’t had a really big break since his successful ‘feelie’, The Virgin Queen, and there is a lot riding on this contract. Lamotte has written the screenplay for a biopic about Lars Bechmeier, the inventor of the technology behind the feelies, and everyone seems to be very excited about it.
Bizarre as the job seems to be, Gable agrees to take it on. The deception is successfully carried out and in fairly short order April Lamotte attempts to kill Gable b drugging him and leaving him in a car filled with carbon monoxide fumes. However, something odd happens. Gable survives the attempt on his life and forms the odd impression that something or someone unidentified saved him. But who or what? His mind full of questions Gable returns to the city, retreating to the room that Daniel Lamotte kept there so that he could get on with writing in private.
Before Gable can confront April Lamotte she is found dead in circumstances similar to those Gable would have been found in, and Gable is himself mistaken for Daniel Lamotte, forced to identify his ‘wife’ at the morgue and then maintain the pretence. Gable turns this to his advantage in order to investigate April Lamotte’s death and Daniel Lamotte’s disappearance. He works with a young woman, Barbara Edsel, the real Daniel’s neighbour at the rooming house, who has quickly realised that Gable is not who he claims to be. Gradually, they come to realise that the Lamottes are part of a deeper conspiracy centred on something called ‘Thrasis’. However, the question is, what is Thrasis? And there is a second question: why have so many people associated with a film called Broken Looking Glass, the first feelie, either vanished or else died in mysterious circumstances? These include Betty Bechmeir, wife of Lars Bechmeir, the inventer of the technology behind the feelies, found hanging from a bridge. These are promising beginnings for a story and McLeod develops them from something personal, something small-scale, into a complex story with national, even international, ramifications, before resolving the story in a satisfyingly bitter-sweet way.
One of the most admirable things about the novel is the way in which, as I said, McLeod constructs the novel’s setting. As noted earlier, the novel is set in 1940. Europe is at war, and feeling is running high against FDR. There is a great deal of anxiety about whether Roosevelt will take the USA into the war and this anxiety has fuelled interest in the League of Liberty, an organisation fronted by Herbet Kisberg, an openly anti-Semitic potential presidential candidate. The League has, needless to say, a paramilitary wing, although Kisberg keeps himself at some distance from it in public. Many people, though, have simply joined the League as a means of expressing their disquiet.
But McLeod doesn’t just employ a simple historical point of divergence. He reinforces this with a technological point of divergence, the invention of the Bechmeir field, a way of recording emotional responses and then broadcasting them to manipulate people’s emotions. The obvious move was to incorporate them into movie production, hence the advent of the feelies. Effectively, it’s like talking pictures all over again. Many familiar movie stars fell by the wayside because, for various reasons, they could not make the transition to the feelies. Gable was particularly sensitive to the recording machines, reacting as badly to them as they did to him, a fact that stands him in good stead as the story unfolds. We see the Bechmeir Field at work in a number of situations, such as in the mental hospital where Howard Hughes now occupies himself running the asylum’s heating plant, and the broader implications of the technology are clear, given the interest shown in it by the likes of Kisberg.
Too often, alternate histories seem to foreground the points of divergence at the expense of the story. Indeed, too often they’re not about the story at all except insofar as it exists to show off their world-building chops. McLeod’s presentation of the alternative technology is very understated; it is discussed as and when the plot demands, rather than being drawn attention to as part of some sort of Cook’s Tour of Alternate 1940. It is a necessary part of what is going on but always subordinate to the story rather than being brought into the spotlight to do a star turn. It prompts questions but not so obtrusively as to distract the reader from the investigation. It’s a very low-key approach and works very well to build the novel’s atmosphere. McLeod is good too on period atmosphere, including just the right amount of detail as necessary, and not dishing it out inappropriately just to show he’s done the research.
As also noted earlier, I very much admired the pacing of this novel, the way McLeod builds it up from the small beginning of Gable’s odd assignment, through the death of April Lamotte to the realisation of Daniel Lamotte’s being missing, connections being made painstakingly (no internet to rely on for research, which means lots of scutwork in libraries – it really does seem to make a difference to the way a story’s told), moving on to the realisation of just how many people are implicated in what’s been happening. McLeod never seems to drop the ball. He also seems to be able to use a first-person viewpoint narrator with much more skill than many writers. There is no sense of contrivance in making sure Gable is there to see what he needs to see. At the same time, he doesn’t see everything or immediately make the connections and is reassuringly fallible as a result.
In short, I was rather impressed with this novel. It does a lot to refresh the idea of the alternative history and the trope of the luckless PI. It’s just a little bit knowing, enough to be fun without being gimmicky. It wears its research lightly and its atmosphere is not overwhelming. And it tells a good solid, very intriguing story. And the way things are going there is a lot to be said for that.