"You owed a debt?"
"I paid a price."
"There's a difference?"
"Oh yes," said Kit. "A big difference." (p. 336)
While the title of End of the World Blues suggests an Armageddon theme—a popular science fictional trope during the Cold War that may of late, unfortunately, acquire a resurgence in relevance—that's not what we get. Rather, this is a story of both literal and psychological rebirth in which the characters achieve, to use the pop-psych term, "closure" for their "blues." To underline this, the Bogartian protagonist's last name is Nouveau, the French word for "new," and his first name is Kit, which connotates a kitten or cat, a creature notable both for its multiple lives as well as its role as a familiar to the supernatural.
Kit has gone AWOL from the British Army, exchanging wartime service in Iraq for a fugitive life in Tokyo as bar owner, heroin user, husband to an artisan with S&M tendencies, and lover of the wife of a High Yakuza gang lord. Of course, he can run, but he can't hide. (Because otherwise, there wouldn't be much point of telling the story.) Our hero is persuaded to return to his homeland to investigate the apparent suicide of a former flame by the supposed (no body was found) dead girl's mother, who is herself an Irish mob boss. Helping to convince Kit to take the case is the fact that someone is out to kill him (and there are several parties with sufficient motive); indeed, one misfired attempt has leveled his bar and murdered his wife. The plot is thickened by the addition of a runaway teenager who calls herself Nijie, on the lam for stealing a suitcase stuffed with fifteen million dollars in currency, who saves Kit from a hit attempt and follows him back to England. This puts her in a vulnerable position as Kit finds himself caught between a drug trafficking ring the dead girl has been involved with and a secret intelligence agency that wants Kit's help to arrest the ringleader.
Complications ensue. And, of course, not all is as it seems, as events reveal seeming enemies are actually allies, and vice versa.
These are all elements of a standard noir thriller, the tale of an antihero pressed between shadowy circumstances striving to live up to a personal code of honor, even if unsure what it might be. But John Courtenay Grimwood grafts onto it a SF/fantasty subplot in which Nijie is actually Lady Neku, a fugitive from a bleak far future ("the end of the world") of human decline, characterized by clan rivalry over what little is left of civilization. Lady Neku's effort to protect her seemingly pathetic husband-to-be in an arranged marriage intended to broker peace between two warring families results in disaster. In an allusion to the idea that there are no accidents in the great chain of being, an artifact that has survived from ancient times (i.e., the near-future setting of Kit's adventures) provides the link to Neku's reincarnation as Nijie.
This is a novel about karma, about how, despite our best intentions (and sometimes because of our worse ones), we hurt the ones we love; fate, however, has a way of letting us make amends. Or, as the hero puts it, paying the price.
In a 2002 interview with Rodger Turner of The SF Site, Grimwood says that his novels are generally grounded in the theme of identity which "seems to me to be fluid . . . I've long believed that people remake themselves according to circumstance or necessity." End of the World Blues is the latest iteration of this philosophy. While Grimwood's settings are sometimes compared to Philip K. Dick, in this novel, at least, the eventual outcome is less bleak; the paranoia in Dick leads to existential despair, but for the characters in End of the World Blues, the darkness of despair leads to, if not enlightenment, then the chance of better things.
This may be why Grimwood felt the need to introduce elements of Oriental mythology and reincarnation, to underline the notion of rebirth and that perhaps God does not roll dice with the universe, even when it seemingly comes up snake eyes. Interestingly, though, if you remove the fantastical subplot, you still have a perfectly satisfactory thriller that could have stood on its own. In the same interview, Grimwood emphasizes that he writes mysteries/thrillers, with certain SF trappings. "[W]hat I hate is someone borrowing tropes from one genre and then using them badly or in a perfunctory way in another. . . . What I'm writing are mystery novels set in an alternative universe in what happens to be the future. As far as my characters are concerned theirs is the only possible world and the time they live is now, nothing else. Murders happen, crimes get committed, someone has to solve them or pick up the pieces."
While Grimwood certainly does not use the genre tropes badly, my initial impression of End of the World Blues was that the SF tropes were used perfunctorily. Or, at least not as well as the thriller tropes. I found myself much more engrossed by Kit's story than Lady Neku's, and was at times irritated when her narrative interrupted what I considered the main storyline. The trick to writing a successful genre story is to take standard tropes that readers expect and still surprise them, at the very least keep them guessing even as they expect resolution. Grimwood does Chandler proud with the noir thriller; the fantastical element certainly puts a different spin on it, though I didn't find it quite as engaging.
I'm still undecided whether the insertion of the weird necessarily makes it a better piece of fiction, but if you're a fan of both genres, it is perhaps more enjoyable. And it is, presumably, what fans of Grimwood will expect.
David Soyka is a freelance journalist and teacher who writes the occasional short story. He also writes corporate marketing communications, which is a fiction of a different sort.