The Jennifer Morgue (2006), the second novel in Charles Stross’ LAUNDRY FILES, is a science fiction spy thriller that’s an obvious homage to Ian Fleming and H.P. Lovecraft. Bob has been sent to the Caribbean to try to find out why Ellis Billington, an evil megalomaniac billionaire, is interested in The Jennifer Morgue, a place deep in the ocean which may be an access point into our universe by tentacled eldritch horrors. For this assignment, Bob is paired up with someone from the American agency that deals with this kind of supernatural stuff — a gorgeous woman possessed by a succubus.
As usual, Bob has been insufficiently briefed about his mission, so he’s bewildered most of the time. What is he doing wearing a tuxedo to a casino and ordering vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred)? Why does his nemesis have a fluffy white long-haired cat and insist on giving long-winded monologues every time he captures Bob? Bob doesn’t get to drive an Aston Martin, but his Smartcar swims and has an eject button. Eventually Bob discovers that he’s been hooked by a Hero Trap and he’s destined to play a role he doesn’t feel suited for.
Unpredictable and amusing all the way through, The Jennifer Morgue is a strange blend of genres that manages to work in Charles Stross’ hands. The plot is extremely far-fetched (just like a James Bond story), but that’s part of the fun. There are the usual geek culture references (e.g, Thinkgeek, and the famous 1984 Mac ad), comical office scenes (such as when all the attendees of a meeting are hypnotized by a Powerpoint presentation), and cool technology that seems more like magic (e.g., cosmetics used for surveillance). There are also undead seagulls, minions with mirrored shades and machine guns, and Bond babes. There are several plot twists and a reveal that turns the whole misogynistic James Bond trope on its head (thank you, Mr. Stross!).
At the end, The Jennifer Morgue contains some bonus material. There’s a hilarious short story called “Pimpf” in which Bob has to rescue a new intern from inside a MMORPG. Gamers will love it, I think. Then there’s an essay by Stross about the culture of the James Bond franchise which includes an interview with Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Again, I listened to the excellent audio version produced by Recorded Books and read by the perfectly-cast Gideon Emery. I recommend it.
Kat provided a great summary of the plot of The Jennifer Morgue, a longish LAUNDRY FILES novel starring everyone’s favorite sysadmin-turned-field-agent Bob Howard. Bob is happily settling into a long-term relationship with girlfriend and fellow agent Dominique, or “Mo,” when he is sent on a mission to Germany, which quickly spirals into something completely different, and no one will tell him exactly what is going on. Before long we’ve got a supervillain with a long-haired white cat, an impregnable floating fortress, gadgets hidden in heels of shoes, hand-to-hand combat, glamorous women assassins, deluxe casinos and martinis shaken, not stirred. It all sounds like something out of a James Bond novel… and that’s because it is.
The Jennifer Morgue is unabashedly a James Bond-ish story, with an unbelievable premise, over-the-top villains and outrageous mechanical toys. Even more disturbing, the villain knows it’s a James Bond story, because he has crafted the geas or spell that is creating it. As Bob and the deadly, gorgeous American assassin Ramona try to prevail, Bob is forced into behaviors that aren’t natural to him. Ramona explains that this is the “hero geas” he is under, but Bob keeps getting the feeling that something just isn’t right. Meanwhile, back in London, Mo is getting increasingly worried and angry… and she is now carrying a violin case. It’s just a violin case, right? How bad could that be?
I thought the story was too long, but it was great fun. Apart from all the Bond send-ups — the car (in an era of budget austerity, Bob gets a Smart car, but it’s pretty cool), the casino and the drinks — there is plenty of original material, like Ramona herself, who is much more than meets the eye, and the really cruel spell Bob’s bosses (and Ramona’s) subject them to so that the operation will work. Stross is obviously familiar with the Ian Fleming novels, or at least the movies, and several scenes here evoke bits from the books. In a couple of places, I lost the ability to suspend disbelief, most notably the first long scene underwater with Bob and Ramona. Overall, though, I completely bought into this whacky spy adventure.
I have to say, demonic possession/death by Powerpoint was so realistic it was a little too close to home.
I found the gaming-themed short story included in this edition, “Pimpf” to be predictable, but the gaming aspect was hilarious. I loved the long essay about Fleming, Bond and the Bond villains, including Stross’s interview with Ernst Blofeld, who was, he assures us, simply an entrepreneur who was demonized by the nanny state. As Stross puts it, “Blofeld is a cheerful veteran of numerous start-ups.” [Snicker.] The essay is funny, quite informative and puts Bond into the 21st century context in a thoughtful way.
While some of the exposition was too much, for me The Jennifer Morgue showcases everything THE LAUNDRY FILES does well.