Review: The Evidence by Christopher Priest

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Christopher Priest’s sixteenth novel, his fifth in the last decade, returns to the uneasy setting of the Dream Archipelago, most recently traversed in 2016’s The Gradual. On the one hand, The Evidence is classic Priest with the full panoply of twins, stage magicians and the endless war between Glaund and Faiandland trundling on in the background. But, on the other, it’s a crime novel with several variants on the locked-room mystery and a particularly violent murder scene. Has Priest sold out to the demands of commercial genre writing or is he sarcastically deconstructing the format?

The Evidence

The novel begins with crime writer, Todd Fremde, on a train on Dearth Island heading to Dearth City, where he will be staying in the Dearth Plaza Hotel, in order to give a keynote lecture, to a conference organised by the University of Dearth Literary and Historical Society, on ‘The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime-Free Society’. Fremde has accepted the invitation against his better judgment, swayed by the promise of top cuisine, a suite at the hotel, and being driven around in a university car. Therefore, he makes it clear he only has time to give the lecture and then leave the next day. While it would no doubt be a mistake to conflate Fremde with Priest himself, the following fear seems heartfelt: ‘The prospect of prolonged and detailed academic discourse from theoreticians who knew little of the art and craft of writing filled me with dread’. Ouch! Suitably chastened, I shall try and rein in my well-known proclivities to quote large chunks of Derrida, Lacan or Agamben for the duration of this review.

Needless to say, the amenities on Dearth fail to match up to their billing but the real trouble arises from Fremde’s inability to adhere to the ‘Seignioral mutability regulations’ with the consequences that his watch stops, the electrical equipment in his room (not suite) takes on a life of his own, letters disappear from his emails and texts, and he incurs hefty fines for ‘electrical mutability abuse’ and a ‘Seignioral surcharge’ for ‘unauthorized horizontal prejudice’. Fortunately, he is able to offset some of the cost of these by cashing in the return half of his rail ticket and accepting the offer of a lift back across the island from a woman, Frejah Harsent, who attended his talk. But even this has its consequences as Harsent, who drives a gullwing roadster with a barely-concealed automatic weapon in the boot, turns out to be a semi-retired detective in the ‘Transgression Investigation Department, Dearth Seignioral Police’. Not only does she insist on telling him extensive details of a cold case that she was involved in because it will give him material for his writing but it also transpires that she is incredibly prejudiced against serfs leading to his blunt admission that he is a ‘citizen serf’, which provokes the following exchange:

‘I’m embarrassed – I assumed you were a professional, a vassal.’

‘That’s just your assumption,’ I said. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m a writer. All writers are serfs.’

Subsequently, Fremde gets back to his home island of Salay Raba and over the following days all seems back to normal apart from the fact that there is no sign of his expenses and fee from the University of Dearth. But then, once more against his better judgement, he finds himself slowly dragged into the ongoing fallout of the cold case that Harsent insisted on describing to him and the attendant complications of twins, magicians and illusory perfect crimes. None of which is helped by the financial collapse and run on the banks, which threatens to destabilise the economy of the entire Archipelago that Fremde may have inadvertently triggered through his mutability transgressions. All of this is great fun, narrated with deadpan irony to characteristic understated comic effect; but with a marked political charge. 

The feudal class system of the Dream Archipelago has never been laid out so starkly as in the drop-down list of ‘social level’ options that Fremde accesses at one point in the proceedings: ‘Serf, Citizen Serf, Villein, Squire, Vassal, Corvée Provider, Cartage Provider, Demesne Landed, Knight, Manorial Landed, Baron, Seignior.’ Although, amusingly, magicians are categorised as a separate category of ‘Mountebank’. In The Evidence, this outdated class system is linked with finance as a manifestation of mutability, which is both a real and unreal process that happens or is thought to happen: ‘best understood as existing somewhere between quantum physics and psychology’. 

The unexpected appearance of the medieval term ‘Vassal’ in contemporary British usage presents an example of this kind of simultaneously real and unreal existence. It is used to express the concern of Brexiteers, such as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not to be reduced to the status of vassals of the European Union regardless of the fact that this is neither a likely outcome nor necessarily an undesirable one. That this kind of absurdity now constitutes the political reality of the UK is a reflection of the state of affairs described in a recent book, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (2020), by William Davies, Professor of Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. Davies posits that the mismatch between ever-expanding digital data and timebound analogue frames of meaning is generating ‘escalating opportunities for conflict over the nature of reality’. This strikes me as essentially the same phenomenon that Priest describes as mutability. Fremde might have been tasked with the seemingly paradoxical task of talking about the role of the modern crime novel in a crime-free society but Priest sets himself the even more difficult problem of writing about the relationship between illusion and reality in a world in which the distinction between them has collapsed. Somehow, by sleight of genre and time-honed skill, he achieves this, and order is restored at the end of The Evidence with revels ended as all is mended. The dream still works even as all falls apart around us.

(c) Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

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