Reviewed by Rod McLary
The Foreword to Bad to Worse recommends that this book is read five times – ‘forward quickly, forward slowly, once aloud, once backwards and once upside down’. Following this recommendation is supposed to assist in understanding the book and in allowing the reader to enter the author’s ‘dissenting universe where every fact seems fallibly familiar and every falsehood impossibly erased’. If nothing else, that sentence offers a glimpse of the nature of Bad to Worse.
The book purports to be a manuscript found by the writer of the Foreword who believes that it may have been written by A B C Darian [note the sequence of initials]. The Foreword also points out that Bad to Worse has some stylistic similarities to The Weaver Fish – an earlier novel by Robert Edeson – and in fact there are references to that book in this one. The structure of the novel suggests a work of scholarly investigation – a suggestion which is reinforced by a scattering of footnotes throughout the novel which expand on and explain various terms and references in the text.
However, despite the faux scholarship, the core of the novel is a feud between two families – Mortiss and Worse – which begins in 1877 with the shooting death of Rigo Mortiss by Tom Worse in Dante Arizona. The story then leaps to sometime in the 21st century where the long-standing feud is now played out to its conclusion by Richard Worse and Regan Mortiss. The names of characters such as ‘Glimpse’, ‘Spoiling’, ‘Reckles’, ‘Mortiss’ and ‘Worse’ demonstrate creative wordplay on the part of the author.
Along the way, there are a number of digressions into science fiction of a kind. One such digression describes a giant crab which lives in a cave system, scuttles upright and kills a cave explorer. After this rather gruesome episode, the crab is never seen again although its supposed presence in the cave inhibits further exploration. Indecipherable hieroglyphs are located in the giant crab’s cave and much time and energy is expended in attempting to decipher them. However, this sub-plot eventually fades away without resolution.
There are continuing references to ‘swint’ which in the novel is a species of bird. ‘Swint’ in urban slang refers to a combination of the words ‘sweet’ and ‘win’ which is used when an item of great importance is obtained free of charge from some source. Perhaps there is a deliberate use of ‘swints’ for the birds as they are reputed to ingest a fruit which contains volcanic gold and have a language which may be translated to English.
These digressions as I have called them create a complicated and complex novel in which the reader can readily find him/herself up a blind alley and lose sight of the core of the novel – the feud. The various footnotes explaining words or terms which have no basis in reality contribute to the complicated nature of the novel while at the same time creating further distractions. Is there really something called Stochastic Signatures of the Parsan Gap written by Nicholas Misgivingston [note the name]? Well – ‘stochastic’ means ‘having a random probability distribution’ which doesn’t really help the reader at all. But then, it is not meant to. The purpose of that term and others like it is simply to add a scholarly or intellectual feel to a novel which is essentially a crime story.
Unfortunately, it is not a particularly good crime novel. The science fiction simply overwhelms the novel which is too clever by half. It is not helpful that there are towns and cities which are clearly fictitious and set alongside those which aren’t – such as Perth Australia where some of the action is set. It is almost as if the novel is moving between two parallel universes – and maybe it is. The secondary story of the swints [for example] seems to go nowhere even though there are continued references to them through the novel. To further detract from the merit of the novel, some of the events are simply too far-fetched and strain the novel’s credibility. One such event is when the character Regan Mortiss, as the CEO of her multi-national corporation, shoots dead a non-performing director at one of her board meetings – and gets away with it!
The author clearly has a creative and intelligent voice which is expressed here in a complex novel which unfortunately lacks cohesion and consistent dramatic tension. The novel falls apart when it tries to create this parallel universe of swints, giant crabs and strange minerals. It works better when the focus is on the feud between Mortiss and Worse. However, there is insufficient content there to sustain the reader’s attention.
Perhaps the last word should come from the novel itself – ‘it is safely read and internalised only by the sound in mind and pure of soul’. The reader can draw his/her own conclusion as to whether he/she meets this criterion.
Robert Edeson was born in Perth and has published in the neuroscience, biophysical and mathematical literatures. His first novel The Weaver Fish – to which there are references in this novel – won the T A G Hungerford Award which is given biennially to Western Australian writers who are not published. Bad to Worse is both a sequel to that novel and a stand-alone novel.
By Robert Edeson
ISBN 978 1 925 16493 0