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Reviews — Ghost Devices/Mean Streets/Tempest

First Published:
Sonic Screwdriver #107

Publish Date:
April 1998

With New, Missing and Benny adventures all at once, I usually ended up with the Bennys to review after the others were snapped up. All the more opportunity to talk up the series!

Three months, three new Benny books; and three very different style of stories. We have Ghost Devices by Simon Bucher-Jones, a novel that wanders between whimsical and galaxy-spanning; Mean Streets by Terrance Dicks, which shows yet again he does the hard-boiled detective books beautifully; and Tempest by Chris Bulis, a new take on the Murder on the Orient Express and locked room mystery-type tales.

First off, Ghost Devices. Benny is on a mission to the planet Canopus, a rather dreary place except for the fact that it has a spire — imaginatively called The Spire — sticking three hundred and forty-four point nine kilometres out of it. Of unknown origins (aren’t all such Artifacts™?) it is made entirely out of a rather strange substance called futurite — a substance that fiddles with time itself. Something wrapped in futurite, for example, will age extremely slowly.

Another effect is to give the local Canopusi priests (confused and sometimes conflicting) visions of the future. The status of The Spire, around which the low-technology Canopusi have naturally enough come to centre on, is a troubled one. Should the creator(s) be seen as god(s)? Are the gods now dead? What would, and should, be the reaction if the creators returned?

Not too long in we find out the creators were the Vo’lach — the same Vo’lach race who provide rather nasty weapons to a large part of the known universe. The kind of weapons, as Benny’s diary puts it, ‘where you don’t really have to worry much about aiming.’ And our protagonists are rather swiftly set up on a visit to said god’s home planet — somewhere no one has ever managed to report on…

While the novel probably has too many strands, and thus can be a bit confusing, the writing style is very readable (much more so than the author’s previous The Death of Art). The revelations on the Vo’lach’s origins — and the, er, character introduced at that time — are fascinating. The concluding revelations and actions rank, on a Universal scale, with those from Logopolis. The end also features, depending on your viewpoint, a massive cop-out or a rather neat approach to a traditionally unresolved question. I favour the latter explanation. Benny’s reaction to this is just as extreme, and makes for extremely powerful reading.

Overall, a good read with some very novel ideas. You just might want to keep a list of characters and groups by your side to keep everything straight though!

And now for something completely different: good ol’ Unca Terry, after being savaged for the, let us say, somewhat simple Eight Doctors, has another hit with Mean Streets. If you liked the Chicago/Al Capone sections of Blood Harvest — and how could you not — you’ll love this one. Set in Megacity, which featured previously in the book version of Shakedown, Benny and Chris Cwej are after some criminal activity known only as the Project. They are re-joined by Garshak the intelligence-enhanced Ogron, ex-Chief of Police and now private detective.

This book is just soooo readable. Terrance is obviously totally at ease with this style of writing — as with the Al Capone-dominated Chicago of Blood Harvest, Megacity is a den of vice, with struggling gang lords, dodgy police and danger every step. With an action-packed combination of deals and double-deals, ambushes and rescues, the pace never slackens as the story unfolds. But the Project is far from your standard crime, and their investigations must go deep into — and sometimes through — the various gangs before its true nature can be revealed. And just what link might a rash of apparently irrationally violent crimes — affecting all sides — have to the Project?

The real triumph of this book remains, however, the characters and the atmosphere that Dicks weaves. His Megacity is completely immersive, from the interaction of the various races that populate it to the more-than-just-standard-baddies. Plus it’s a great relief to have a fully functioning Chris back again after he was "recovered" to Benny’s time in Deadfall. This book never tries to go to the dizzy heights of the previous, and, in this case, is all the better for it.

And finally, we come to Tempest, Christopher Bulis’s latest effort. In my opinion, Bulis’s previous Who works (and there’s been quite a few by now!) have consistently been very average — nothing too shockingly bad, but it was rare you came away enlightened or retaining strong memories of the piece just read. This was despite the fact that he often had quite fantastical (as in the purer meaning of the word ‘fantasy’) elements to his stories (such as a created alternate Roman Empire, a hollow planet with god-like creatures controlling the mechanisms within, and a scientific magic system). Thankfully, while that reputation may not be changing too much after this book, this book is eminently readable and possesses enough neat twists and maneuvers to keep the reader absorbed.

Benny is on the inhospitable planet Tempest as a guest lecturer when she meets businessman Nathan Costermann. Costermann is just about to sell a precious statue he owns: the Drell Imnulate. It is while on the train trip to Carlsbad City — in the unstable, storm-ridden and rather poisonous environment of Tempest, there are few alternate methods of travel — that he is found unconscious, his bodyguard dead and the Imnulate missing. With a sealed train in the middle of nowhere, and the Imnulate’s case supposedly being impossible to penetrate, we have a triple mystery: who stole the Imnulate, how did they get it out of the case and where was it hidden thereafter?

As a mystery it is packed with the traditional elements. There are a rash of suspects with (varying) motives and access. Thankfully, in direct contrast to the recent Second Doctor story The Murder Game, these characters are all distinct and with believable motives. Benny and fill-in companion Garv Ferlane seemed to follow my thoughts as, bit by bit, theories are postulated and discoveries made. The storyline fully revels in its mystery crime setting as our two drafted detectives work through the possibilities, and as each is discounted the crime takes on a more and more impossible nature. Quite a few of my thoughts were certainly shot down in flames! The attention to detail in this book is immaculate, and for that it gets a definite thumbs-up.

Finally, these three books all end, somewhat unusually, on somewhat down notes. Indeed, in the case of Ghost Devices, Benny attempts suicide. Mean Streets brings us back to the apparently-forgotten death of one of her students and the consequences of that, and Tempest leaves a major character incapacitated and a further mystery unsolved. As was once not said by a recurring character, ‘Splendid endings, all of them’.

End of Review

Here’s the list of the Doctor Who reviews available here:
Benny Adventure: Beyond the Sun
Benny Adventure: Deadfall
Benny Adventure: Ghost Devices/Mean Streets/Tempest
Benny Adventure: The Sword of Forever
Fanzines: Mag Bag #1
Fanzines: Mag Bag #2
Fanzines: Mag Bag #3
Fanzines: Mag Bag #4
Fanzines: Mag Bag #5
Fanzines: Mag Bag #6
Fanzines: Mag Bag #7
Fanzines: Mag Bag #8
Fanzines: Mag Bag #9
Fanzines: Mag Bag #10
Fanzines: Mag Bag #11
Fanzines: Mag Bag #12
Missing Adventure: Dancing the Code
Missing Adventure: Downtime
Missing Adventure: Invasion of the Cat-People
Missing Adventure: Lords of the Storm
Missing Adventure: Scales of Injustice
Missing Adventure: Shadow of Weng-Chiang
Missing Adventure: System Shock
New Adventure: Bloodheat
New Adventure: Death of Art
New Adventure: Dimension Riders
New Adventure: Eternity Weeps
New Adventure: Falls the Shadow
New Adventure: Legacy
New Adventure: No Future
New Adventure: Sleepy
TV: The Curse of Fenric
TV: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
TV: The Happiness Patrol
TV: Season 25 Review
TV: Season 27 Review (the 2005 return)
TV: The Twin Dilemma
→ Or just head back to the Doctor Who Index

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This page last updated by David J Richardson on Wed, 20 Apr 2005.