dupes, dawkins, and the dead: christopher brookmyre’s attack of the unsinkable rubber ducks

I will admit to being slightly disappointed in the last Brookmyre I read, A Snowball in Hell, (one of the disappointments was the slightly shallow reason that I felt that there weren’t enough Glaswegian accents or funny bits) but with Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, Brookmyre is back on form.

His investigator/intrepid reporter, Parlabane, is a bit battered, however.  He announces at the beginning of the book that he is, in fact, dead. Who did it? Well, it wouldn’t be playing fair if we found that out too quickly, so Brookmyre immediately plunges us into the murky world of psychic phenomena and research.

A book that begins with a dedication to Richard Dawkins and a quotation from David Hume on the burden of proof is, when coupled with the psychics and mediums littering the rest of the book, heady stuff.  The book is written in the past tense, as if it was a report from beyond, with a slew of characters reporting what happened up to Parlabane’s death. The most suspicious character (and there are a few that jockey for that position) is Gabriel Lafayette, psychic and erstwhile scientific investigator.

Lafayette and his cronies are promoting the idea for a new chair at Kelvin College–one that would devote itself to “scientific” investigations of psychic phenomena.  Initially blocked by the head of the department, the chair gains momentum when any sort of barrier begins to suspiciously melt away (or, occasionally, die) and Parlabane is soon brought in to be a cynical and neutral witness to the test of Lafayette’s powers.

The secondary plot follows Michael Loftus, a student at the college.  Oddly enough, Michael also begins the book officially dead. He is determined to prove that Lafayette’s powers are in the long con and not psychic abilities.  Unfortunately, this pits him against a dangerous set of men who think nothing of torturing and murdering in order to get what they want. Luckily for the reader, Michael’s knowledge of the tricks and illusions that go with the psychic trade–and an endearing love for all thinks geeky and Firefly–make him the frequent utterer of Brookmyre’s cynical and hysterical one-liners.

Parlabane works his way to the explanations for all of the psychic events Lafayette creates. As the secrets of charlatans and con artists get revealed, the book takes aim at creationists, psychics, mediums, advocates for intelligent design, and a variety of people who are the unsinkable rubber ducks of the title:

determined to go on believing in woo, no matter how much evidence to the contrary you present them with