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Incompetence
Rob Grant
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Christopher Geary

Under the guise of a federal Europol officer, secret agent Harry Salt investigates a series of suspicious deaths in Rome and Paris, while trying to make contact, and rendezvous, with his colleague, Klingferm. But poor Harry is living in the nightmarish future of a United States of Europe, where stupidity is the legally accepted norm at every level of culture and society. Chaos rules, as Harry is pursued across the continent by a maniacal Italian police captain with anger management problems, and soon finds himself wanted for a murder that he didn't commit (even though he might have liked to). Detective work is thwarted, travel plans are obstructed, meals are poisoned, any attempts at romance are foiled, and hotel accommodation is nonexistent but, always the optimist, Harry makes the nearly fatal mistake of trying to catch a train...

Social and political satire abounds in this consistently amusing comedy of errors as, by and large, the irrational behaviour of incompetent members of staff in various public service industries and security forces (think of Basil Fawlty's management skills, or Inspector Clouseau's policing ineptitude) proves just as dangerous to the overstressed hero as the homicidal rage of obsessive Captain Zuccho and the mastermind plotting of Harry's potentially traitorous associates. Exhaustively funny turns at crime solving, renting a car for the computer-controlled motorway, international counterespionage, ordering room service, and escaping from the hellish custody of a Kafkaesque legal system ensure that Harry's journey from obscurity to heroism is extremely difficult and frequently harrowing, but certainly never dull.

Despite some hi-tech trappings and speculative themes, Grant doesn't bother to do very much with the genre premise (see Brian Aldiss' Super-State for better work in this area) except to throw his protagonist into embarrassing or critical situations, each more absurdly perilous or humiliating than the last, while simultaneously cracking jokes about the hero's lack of confidence in the authorities of an increasingly cynical and systematically amoral world, or the flea-market-driven European parts of it, at least. Thankfully, the author makes a good effort to avoid the standard flashback and info-dump format that often ruins the pace of this kind of sci-fi farce.
Incompetence

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