The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

Published by Ace
January 2009
ISBN 978-0-441-01671-6
416 Pages

Take one part James Bond, another part Lovecraft/Cthulhu mythos, and a sprinkling of Dilbert, and you’re on your way to Charles Stross’s The Jennifer Morgue. Protagonist Bob Howard works for the Laundry, the paranormal investigative arm of the British Secret Service. He isn’t exactly a James Bond-level superspy, rather, he is a computer programmer. He is forcibly made to pair-up with a sexy American counterpart, who happens to be a hybrid demon with a succubus parasitically attached to her, in order to thwart a megalomaniac billionaire’s plans for world domination.

Part of the fun of this book is reveling in the clichés Stross himself pokes fun at and uses to tell the story. Much of the early spy plot mirrors Casino Royale in that Bob Howard finds himself in a casino gambling at high stakes. However, whereas Bond is smooth, debonair, and a single ladies-man, Howard is awkward, romantically linked and can’t gamble worth a lick. When he meets up with his partner Romana, a drop-dead gorgeous American counterpart, the Bond parallels only continue, but this is where the Lovecraftian/Cthulhu elements really take hold. It turns out the titular JENNIFER MORGUE is something of a lodestone between our world and the world of the DEEP SEVEN, beings who mirror Lovecrafts Old Ones. When billionaire Ellis Billington, who does have cat much like Blofeld, hatches a plot to take the MORGUE for his own purpose, the Bond elements are in full effect.

While I’ve read, and for the most part enjoyed, some of Stross’s other fiction (Singularity Sky; Saturn’s Children; Missile Gap) this is the most over-the-top and readable book I’ve read by him. I also get the sense that Stross had a great deal of fun putting Bob Howard through the proverbial wringer in this story. The humour abounds, and one of the most entertaining aspects of the story is the use of footnotes throughout the novel that either provide additional narrative insight from Howard or provide “facts” about the world in which the story takes place.

The characters do come across pretty well, too. Howard’s affable and honest nature adds to his charm makes it and difficult not to like him. Ramona has her fun with him, too and Stross keeps enough of her true nature hidden throughout the story too keep her intriguing. Howard’s girlfriend Mo complements him very well and shines in the scenes towards the end.

My only mixed feelings relate to the office-culture/IT techno-babble littered throughout the novel. On one hand, the point is continually made how boring Power Point presentations can be, and for the most, I found those passages to ring true. When Bob started hacking into the Ellington’s computer or began using techno-jargon, I was a little lost. The novel, and Stross, takes it on assumption readers who pick up the book will at least have glancing knowledge of the Bond mythos. Considering how long the films have been part of popular culture, this isn’t too much of a stretch.

Also included in this edition is an essay, “The Golden Age of Spying” which gives a nice historical context to what he was trying to do in tearing down the Bond tropes. The short story “Pimpf” is another Bob Howard adventure.

All told, The Jennifer Morgue, and the adventures of Bob Howard are fine, entertaining stories worthy of a strong recommendation.

© 2008 Rob H. Bedford

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