Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff, is a funny, dark and twisty thriller. I was hooked on Page Five, when a woman who is being held in the nut-job wing of a Nevada jail says to the doctor evaluating her, “I think it all started when I figured out my high school janitor was the Angel of Death…”
Jane Charlotte, the woman in question, says she works for a secret organization called, well, the organization. This organization has a unit called “The Division for the Final Disposal of Irredeemable Persons” — nicknamed Bad Monkeys. (All of the organization’s divisions have nicknames.) Jane, a Bad Monkeys operative, has been captured because one of her assignments went bad, but as she starts telling the doctor her story, it’s clear that things started going wrong in Jane’s life much earlier.
Jane’s story unspools like a true spy thriller or the oh-so-logical delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic. Young Jane fights constantly with her single-parent mother and resents her younger brother. She ends up getting sent to live with her aunt and uncle in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Through a fluke, Jane identifies the school janitor as a serial killer who has been labeled “the Angel of Death,” but she is unable to prove it. Suddenly, someone begins communicating with her in secretive ways, through clues in crossword puzzles and voices on phones that didn’t ring. Someone gives Jane a gun that does not fire bullets, but kills the janitor when he breaks into her house and attacks her. It is years later, though, before Jane is actively recruited by the organization, and her real work begins.
Bad Monkeys is told mostly in the first person, interspersed with third-person interludes as the doctor gently debunks pieces of Jane’s narrative. The tale spirals and loops, turning back on itself as Jane meets characters, like Carlotta Juanita, who are variations of herself or what she could have been. The book is decorated with word-play like a cupcake with sprinkles; Jane Charlotte evokes both a famous Bronte character and the best-known Bronte author. Case handlers in the organization are all named Robert, but they have last names like Wise, True and Love. Nestled into the inner curve of this wild story of action adventure, drugs, lies, and family dynamics is a serious question about the nature of evil. Is evil an absolute? Can you commit only a small evil? And is the organization, which is not interested in justice but merely the elimination of evil, any better? Jane tells her interviewer that John Wayne Gacy, an infamous serial killer, belonged to a part of the organization called The Scary Clowns, until he went bad.
Part of the book takes place in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, but the rocket-fuelled climax is set in Las Vegas, Nevada, and that’s no accident. Five-star casinos are the perfect backdrop for wild drug trips, lethal clowns, car chases, double and triple crosses, and martial arts sequences.
The book is short, coming in at just over 200 pages, and Jane’s voice is vital and fresh. She is not necessarily a likeable character, but she is a compelling one. I thought I had figured out the story, and then I thought I had figured it out again, and then the final pages upended my theories completely. Bad Monkeys is a dark, convoluted, entertaining puzzle of a book.