Paul Kincaid Reviews Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

Cold Water, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris 978-1-78618-722-2, £9.99, tp) November 2022. Cover by blacksheep-uk.

We’ve encountered the story many times before: the master criminal coming out of retirement for one last job; the retired doctor who finds himself the only person with medical knowledge when disaster strikes; perhaps most pertinently the aged spy called back to the service in order to unmask the mole in the Circus. So now we have the fractured Europe, summoned from its rest at the end of the quartet for one further adventure. Although this deconstructed landscape of nascent states is too fertile a ground for the complex stories that Dave Hutchinson likes to weave, so I would be surprised if this was the last we see of it.

Yet for all the patchwork of independent cities and minuscule statelets that make up this future, it is familiar territory that Hutchinson returns to: Finland, the Baltic states, and particularly Poland. ‘‘It could be because, as Hutchinson says, in the world of the Fractured Europe series, ‘‘there was a common agreement that the Baltic peoples were batshit crazy,’’ but nevertheless these have been, to varying extents, the focus of all the fractured Europe stories to date, and despite side trips to Spain and Texas, it is clearly here that Hutchinson feels most comfortable. We walk the streets of Gliwice and Tallinn with an easy familiarity, as if the novel could almost be a guide to these cities. I have said before that Hutchinson builds his vi­sion of the extraordinary by concentrating on the ordinary, and it is the vivid sense of everyday life portrayed in these settings that makes us believe every extraordinary thing that happens there.

We start in Gliwice in Poland. Carey Tews, journalist, sometime private detective, and most pertinently a retired coureur, has been summoned from her home in Spain because a ‘‘situation’’ has developed. Maksim, another coureur, though one with distinct criminal tendencies, who was once her mentor and her lover, has been killed in a road accident. But nobody knows what Maksim was doing in Gliwice in the first place, and something about the accident doesn’t add up. Carey, because of her knowledge of the man, seems like the best person to look into the matter. She is reluctant to take on the job, given that to say she and Maksim parted on bad terms would be an understatement, and she’s not too happy with the coureurs either, given an unspecified incident in Budapest. But, as the powers that be within the coureurs des bois perhaps anticipated, curiosity wins out.

The story of her investigations – slow, patient and often frustrating – forms the spine about which the novel hangs. But it is not the whole story. Three narrative strands run through the novel. The first tells the story of Carey’s investi­gation: a story of increasing peculiarities, events that make no obvious sense, and the gradual involvement of the Russian intelligence service, an Estonian policewoman, and shadowy watch­ers. The second strand also focuses on Carey, but this tells her background story from her youth in Texas, through the Xian flu, her move to Europe to try and become a journalist, her recruitment by the coureurs des bois, her training by Maksim, their subsequent alienation, and certain of her early adventures such as the time she found herself substituting for the wife of a crime boss who was trying to escape.

The second strand, therefore, tells us how we reached the situation that Carey finds herself in at the start of the novel. But the third strand, which is in some ways the most interesting, seems com­pletely detached from the story we are being told elsewhere in the novel. This alternates between Lenna, an alcoholic journalist who is hired by a mysterious figure to campaign for justice for a Russian national who was apparently killed by the Estonian police some years before, and Krista, an ambitious policewoman in Tallinn whose late father is suddenly accused, out of the blue, of the murder of that Russian citizen. What we get, therefore, is two contrasting perspectives on a situation that rapidly gets out of hand, lead­ing to rioting and eventually to the overthrow of the Estonian government.

It is worth noting, parenthetically, that all of the leading figures in this novel, and a number of the more interesting secondary characters, are women. Yet Hutchinson never once feels the need to make them into ‘‘kick-ass heroines’’: they are simply able and resourceful in their own right. Carey, in her main narrative, is that oddity in adventure fiction, a woman conscious of growing old and behaving that way. It makes the novel more real, more believable, and much more engaging.

Hutchinson is not just adept at drawing con­vincing characters, he is also extremely good at plotting. The way the various narrative strands seem to be heading off in opposite directions, and yet somehow manage to entwine around each other into a curiously satisfying, if oddly low key, climax is a joy to behold.

Of course this is a Fractured Europe novel, so we are familiar with the situation. It is not exactly clear when the timeframe of Cold Water is, though it seems to be set some time after the events of Europe at Dawn. There is, for instance, one brief passing reference to Rupert, who would appear to be the Rupert of Henzau who featured so notably in the quartet, but he plays no part in the narrative and no other characters from the quartet make an appearance. Still, the Commu­nity is, by now, a known quantity, even if not fully understood, so as readers we might anticipate that it comes into play at some point, perhaps account­ing for some of the more inexplicable features surrounding Maksim’s apparent death. And so it does, but not in the way we might expect, largely thanks to the long-ago actions of an offshoot of the Whitton-Whyte family.

By the end of the novel we know that Maksim’s actions, driven characteristically by petty and selfish motives, have led to political instability in two countries, open gang warfare, and ten­sions between two different parallel realities. Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe novels, with their combination of political nous and Le Carré-esque spycraft, have proved to be extraordinarily complex and compelling, and Cold Water is no exception.

Paul Kincaid has published two collections of essays and reviews, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014). His most recent book is Iain M. Banks (2017). He has been awarded the Clareson Award from the SFRA and the BSFA Non-Fiction Award.

This review and more like it in the January 2023 issue of Locus.

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