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Looking for Mr Nobody

by Sue Rann

(No Exit Press, 9.99, 249 pages, uncorrected book proof, published 19 June 2003.)

(Warning: the penultimate paragraph of this review contains plot spoilers).

Looking for Mr Nobody is the first novel by Sue Rann. Set in a near-future Amsterdam, it tells the story of two characters. Robin cover scan Carlson is an American woman, daughter of a General in the US Army, who teaches martial arts, works as a bouncer, and freelances (rather ineptly, it has to be said, from what we see) in the world of security. Jan Wolf is a vagrant, living from hand-to-mouth on the streets of Amsterdam, and dependent upon the charity of others. Wolf cannot recall his past, which only comes to him in fragments, and dreams of drowning, and the evidence of the bullet scar upon his body.

When a friend of Robin's arrives unannounced in her flat to ask for her help over 'a spot of bother', it sets off a chain of events that will bring Robin and Jan together, place them both in danger, and eventually reveal the secrets of his past and the truth behind the project codenamed Nemesis.

One of the strengths of the story is its pacing; frenetic from beginning to end, the action launches on the first page and does not let up until the last. Rann manages to keep the tension going throughout.

Amsterdam's an atmospheric place deserving to be a setting for fiction, and Sue Rann does it justice. The atmosphere is convincing, especially because of the many minor details, and it doesn't suffer from the look-I'm-set-in-an-exotic-place syndrome of some other novels, where description is not part of the narrative, just a big stick beating the reader as a reminder that the setting is Really Cool. The cosmopolitan nature of the cast of characters is well at home in such a cosmopolitan city. It amused me, after I'd finished the book, to read an interview with the author in which she revealed that at the time of writing the novel, she had not been to Amsterdam, and had created all the detail from hours of research and poring over guidebooks, maps and photos. I've been there a few times, and wouldn't have known this if I hadn't read the interview, so it shows that the research paid off. Whether someone more familiar with the city would pick anything up, I don't know.

Looking for Mr Nobody sits on the boundaries between crime and sf, although much of the plot is believable within the bounds of the current world. The exception is a cyberpunkish subplot, with references to VR worlds, which isn't really that essential to the heart of the novel, and perhaps betrays one of the novel's flaws--that the author is chock full of ideas, and keen to use them.

As a result, at times the novel feels a little overcrowded, and because of this some of the ideas aren't as developed as they could have been. The same is true of Robin's character: she's given A Past which is meant to explain her current emotional state, but it is rather perfunctory and feels tagged on as a token, rather than woven deep into the character.

In many ways Looking for Mr Nobody would better be described as a thriller rather than a crime novel. The frenetic pacing is coupled with a reoccuring implausibility which keeps the action going in a fast--and it has to be said, entertaining way--but which perhaps detracts from any sense of realism. Robin's supermodel friend happens to have an amazing and highly implausible secret double life, an eccentric character met briefly once in the book turns up at the end as an all-slaying deus ex killing-machina, the super-professional and ruthless villains are kind enough to imprison Robin in a room with an open telephone point in, and yet let her keep her handbag with a palmtop computer in, and indulge in a certain amount of "You see Mr Bond, this is how we intend to..." explanation, rather than just shooting people and getting on with the Evil Plan. All this is the stuff of high thrillerdom, where excitement, techno-glamour and constant action rule, and plausibility is gently ushered to one side.

Perhaps it's precisely because of this that I could see "Looking for Mr. Nobody" being filmed; there is a distinct visual quality to the book and the non-stop pacing just adds to its suitability for adaptation.

Review by Iain Rowan.

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