Review: Paul Carter Is A Dead Man by Ryan Bracha

Regular readers will know that I was pretty taken with Ryan Bracha’s Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet last year. It was enjoyable, ambitious, well-written and tried to do things a little bit differently.

Well, now he’s back with his latest Paul Carter Is A Dead Man. It’s a singular take on the dystopian nightmare tale – think more Big Brother in the Endemol definition rather than the Orwellian one. It’s set in the present day but in a reimagined Britain, which has closed off its borders to the rest of the world after an explosion in 2009 that kills more than 400 of its citizens (including three generations of heirs to the throne). Law enforcement as it was no longer exists. Power (of a sort) is now in the hands of the British people, and criminals are placed in online public courts for twenty four hours, to be judged. The sentence for most crimes, and in most cases, is death, although if not enough votes are gathered the defendant is released unharmed.

As the story starts, Paul Carter is on the run for murdering an internet troll who was ruining his reputation. By the end of the evening he has killed another man (one of the crews – hired thugs recruited as police under the new regime), and his status as Public Enemy No 1. is secured. The one person he can turn to in his hour of need, his cousin Danny, refuses to give him shelter so he goes on the run again, which brings him into contact with Katie, a pretty girl with terrible breath, who has been made homeless by the changes in British society (although homelessness is somewhat different in the new Britain). She takes him back to where she is living with her friend Shane, also homeless. When Carter’s cousin is unfairly arrested, the man decides to do something about it – setting in motion events that will send shockwaves through the hopelessly corrupt system. It will also prove a test of the kind of man Carter is – failing will cost him and those he holds dear their lives…

Paul Carter is a Dead Man is a well written alternative future dystopia. It is also an effective satire of modern day Britain – a place where people are often judged by the kangaroo court of public opinion on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other smaller social media networks, where rumours, innuendo and ignorance are often paraded as facts and then shared like viruses from wall-to-wall and retweeted by tens of thousands, where more members of the public vote for singers in public talent competitions than they do for their political leaders. Bracha sets up the base story of Carter, and his transition from wanted murderer to freedom fighter, nicely and then branches out into vignettes that deal with modern day Britain. Although they are well written, I felt that on occasion these vignettes detracted my attention away from Carter’s story. Bracha had expertly built and sustained tension that is then slackened when the tale slows down to take a detour. Part of me wondered if Bracha might have been better served by dovetailing these elements into the story somehow (but, then again, these may pay off later, as Paul Carter is the first of a trilogy). However, this is a minor caveat because the main story and the main characters are so damn compelling and the vignettes are never very long.

Paul Carter is a major step-up from Strangers (which was no slouch, I might add) in terms of the leanness and meanness of the writing. It has more focus, is snappier and punchier, and assembles the main story quickly and neatly. Also, the use of wordplay to remove the swearing from the tale is a brilliant move – more sensitive readers really have no reason to complain about bad language. Bracha also performs the neat trick of making a murderer sympathetic, likeable and a compelling enough a personality to bring the reader and other characters under his spell. This is not easy to accomplish, so kudos has to go to the writer for doing it so damn well. The other thing he does superbly is the final third of the tale, where Carter has to make choices, deal with them, and plan his way out of a very tricky situation. Should Bracha ever turn his attention to writing something a little less ambitious, like a straight-up crime thriller, it would probably be a storming tale. Although, I think the ambition of his writing is partly what makes him the author he is (a damn good one).

I heartily recommend Paul Carter is a Dead Man to readers everywhere. It’s an entertaining story that also works as an alternative future dystopia and as a satire of  modern day Britain.

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Review: Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet by Ryan Bracha

I like ambition in a novel. It suggests that the writer gives a damn about their work and, more importantly, suggests that the writer wants to create something that will one day match their ambition. Most of us writers write within ourselves. We work to structures that have been in place for a long time, deal with character tropes that are audience-friendly, narrative experiments are verboten, narrative and plotting are easy to decipher, and language is as reader friendly as possible. Very few of us make our audience work for it. In truth, even though many of us writers say we write to please ourselves and not our audience, the opposite is often true. We want the audience to love us.

So congratulations must go to Ryan Bracha for attempting something ambitious with his first novel Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet (now referred to for brevity’s sake as SAJFYHKY). It’s a multi-multi-character novel that weaves first person, third person, and other forms of narrative into a story that I’ll do my best not to give away too much of.

The story involves people putting themselves forward to potentially receive ten grand for doing something that is initially a mystery to them. When these people start turning up murdered with their throats cut and their clothes removed, it is immediately obvious that something beyond plain old murder is afoot. But, not being in possession of the full facts, the newspapers, the media, and the bloggers tag the murders as the work of the Sheffield Ripper. But as things progress, and the full game is revealed, the killings start to mount up and things start to get really crazy and the story encompasses strange gambling syndicates, millions of pounds worth of money, shady media manipulators, insanity, and a couple of people drawn into all this madness by a French sex addict who follows his dick just once too often.

SAJFYHKY tells its story through numerous narrative devices in numerous narrative voices. As the story progresses, voices chime in for a chapter or so and disappear as death or relevance to the story takes them out of the narrative. Of course, this makes it difficult at times to remember who is who occasionally, especially if you are quite a slow reader, but the whole thing is well written and tries to impale a considerable portion of modern society with its satire. It doesn’t always succeed in its ambition; some chapters feel like they could be shortened, some characters don’t always work; but when it does succeed, and everything is firing, it is incredibly funny and bitter and in places sad. Bracha is a genuinely talented writer. I hope he doesn’t curtail his ambition and continues to stretch himself with broad narratives and experiments with character and voice.

If you are a reader who is prepared to work for it, and can stomach strong violence, language and some sexual content (and if you can’t, why the bloody hell are you reading my blog?), SAJFYHKY will give you some real moments of pleasure and it comes recommended by this particular reviewer.