History: This book was published in 1993. Iain Banks is a contemporary author of Scottish background, who manages to write both regular (albeit plot-driven) fiction and science fiction (he adds his middle initial, "M", when writing SF.)
Plot: Its two main characters are Cameron Colley, a self-described Hunter S Thompson journalist on a Scottish newspaper called The Caledonian, which resembles The Scotsman, and a serial murderer whose identity is a mystery. The passages dealing with the journalist are written in the first person, and those dealing with the murderer in the second person, so the novel presents, in alternate chapters, an unusual example of an unreliable narrator. The events take place mostly in and around Edinburgh.
Colley is a "Gonzo journalist" with an amphetamine habit, living in Edinburgh. He also smokes cigarettes and cannabis, drinks copious amounts of alcohol, plays computer games, and has adventurous sex with a married woman, Yvonne. He regrets his addictions and misdemeanours and tries half-heartedly to give them up occasionally, mainly the cigarette addiction.
He reflects on his awful experience of witnessing the aftermath of the massacre at the 'Highway of Death' in the Gulf War, and covers the deployment of HMS Vanguard, Britain's first Trident nuclear missile submarine.
Cameron Colley, tends to write muckraking pieces that expose hypocrisy and moral and ethical bankruptcy on the part of large companies or wealthy people.
He thinks he has a scoop when he receives anonymous phone calls about a series of mysterious deaths. Suddenly he has mysterious deaths of his own to worry about, when an editorial he wrote years before comes back to haunt him. In it, he suggested that certain named capitalist and right-wing public figures would be better hate-figures than the conventional ones of foreign leaders or domestic criminals. It seems someone is killing off the people on his list, one by one. The description of the murders (which are ingeniously sadistic) is done in a fairly detailed manner.
Cameron and the serial killer are headed on a collision course, as the murders seem to implicate Cameron. Under suspicion by the police, Colley finds himself involved doubly in the bizarre murders when the killer is revealed. The killer is actually an old childhood friend, Andy, with whom he had let down two different times during their childhood…once when Andy was five, fell under the ice, and Cameron ran to his parents instead of running to save him. And again when they were teenagers, and Andy was sexually assaulted, and Cameron escaped, however did return to hit the man over the head with a log. Cameron is actually living through this all of this reoccurring to him as he is being questioned by the police. Andy kills two more men for revenge, and escapes, but not before a long dialogue with Cameron about why he did it all.
At the end of the book, Colley is diagnosed with lung cancer. And Andy survives as a refugee in an unknown city.
Review: Iain Banks is a very readable author - he draws deft characters and gives them interesting and realistic dialogue to speak, fills his scenes with plausible details, and despite the unlikable elements of both main characters, gives them enough sympathy that you care about them and drives you to finish the book. The plot is well-written, and the story skillfully alternates between the present Cameron, flashbacks of Cameron's life, and the serial killer.
Opening Line: “You hear the car after an hour and a half.”
Closing Line: “You light a cigarette, shake your head as you look out over the grey-enthroned city, and laugh.”
Quotes: “Not me. I sucked that smoke in and made it part of me, joined mystically with the universe right at that point, said Yes to drugs forever just by the unique hit I got from that one packet of fags Andy liberated from his dad.”