Review: The Stupidest Angel, by Christopher Moore

stupidest_angel

(Orbit, 2007. ISBN: 978-184149-690-0)

(Review first published on the ASIM website, December 2007)

Christopher Moore’s Stupidest Angel is subtitled ‘A Heart-Warming Tale of Christmas Terror’, and that’s a reasonably apt description. If you haven’t read any of Moore’s previous books, take it from me, he is – he can be – one seriously funny guy.

In the small Californian coastal town of Pine Cove, in the week before Xmas, 40-something divorcee Lena Marquez has an argument with her Santa-suit-clad ex, Dale Pearson, that comes to blows. The domestic is broken up by local constable Theo Crowe, but an hour later Lena and Dale are at it again: still in Santa garb, he’s challenging her over the theft of some of his (many) Christmas trees, which she has been selling for charity. In this particular encounter, Dale manages to slip and impale himself on the upraised blade of Lena’s shovel. The death is witnessed only by one other individual, seven-year-old Josh Barker. Both Josh and Lena are, individually, distraught at this event: Josh because with Santa dead, it’s highly dubious there’ll actually be a Christmas, and Lena because she’s inadvertently killed the man she long ago stopped loving. Throw in several additional, highly off-the-wall characters, including a lecherous helicopter pilot who claims to possess a talking fruit-bat; a fading B-movie sword-fantasy actress whose grip on reality requires a degree of pharmaceutical assistance she’s currently opting to avoid for financial reasons; and an angel who’s a good few strings short of a harp (so to speak), and you have the ingredients for another of Moore’s salty, goofy, slightly left-field exercises in humorous spec-fic. I laughed out loud at several places throughout the book, and it was an easy, agreeable, undemanding read. But still …

I’m starting to feel – and this is probably going to sound a bit heretical, in this venue and among this company – I’m starting to feel that it’s in fact the spec-fic elements in Moore’s work which are somewhat problematical. I had this reaction to Moore’s previous book, Fluke, and I’ve had the same feeling now with Angel, although I didn’t have such problems with A Dirty Job, the other of Moore’s books that I’ve yet read. The problem, as I see it, is that Moore almost does too good a job of setting a topical, satirical scene and populating it with marvellously comic characters, and then introducing the spec-fic elements so subtly and so gradually that the books tend to assert their comic credentials long before they’ve come up to speed on the spec-fic front. As a result, the supernatural or sci-fi aspects can become intrusive – the book has been just fine without them for a good half of its length, so why bring them in at all? This, I think, is the problem which Pratchett has neatly avoided by his consistent use of the clearly fantastical setting of Discworld; Moore, in aiming for real-world verisimilitude (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof) faces the harder task of making plausible the improbable spec-fic events that gradually impinge on his planet-Earth-based characters. In A Dirty Job, the spec-fic component was made apparent sufficiently early in the storyline that it wasn’t such a gatecrasher to the plot, but here in Angel, and in Fluke, the seriously weird things are folded into the mix too late for my taste. All of which may be my roundabout way of saying I’d like to see Moore try a non-genre humorous novel …

I think, though, that it also doesn’t help that here Moore is working with a cast of characters he’s used previously, in other books. Most of Moore’s books, so far as I can tell, have been written as standalones, so that a large part of the joy of reading a Moore novel is in the freshness of the setting and the effervescence of the characters. Here, with a supporting cast drawn from several earlier books, there’s a hint of staleness that comes through, absent in Fluke and A Dirty Job. Even Moore’s trademark facility with dialogue is, here, just that bit off-key.

I’ve dwelt, above, on the negatives, but there are also many positives. There are some wonderfully funny pieces of imagery in Angel, such as a police pursuit of a Christmas tree; several extended pieces of quite brilliant viewpoint humour (I was particularly taken by the scenes presented from the perspective of one character’s pet Labrador, Skinner); and some marvellous offhand digs at pop-culture figures such as Bob Dylan and one G.W. Bush (who he?). And, to be fair, most of the rest of the book is genuinely and undeniably funny, and well worth considering if you’re looking to complete last year’s Xmas shopping well after the fact, or to start next year’s at almost the earliest possible interest. The Stupidest Angel is, all in all, a mostly very enjoyable book, and of humorous Christmas-themed books it’s a good specimen. I just can’t help but feel, though, that it is a bit less than the sum of its parts, and Moore has done better elsewhere.

.

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2007)

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