One of the bravest things about Torchwood has always been the show’s willingness to kick things over. It’s second only to Spooks in the Gleeful Murder of Characters stakes, has been cheerfully up front about throwing ideas onto the screen and then abandoning them if they don’t work and with Children of Earth, the last series it completely destroyed its status quo. What two seasons previously had delivered, with a straight face, an episode about alien sex gas loose in Cardiff became a damning, bleak and at times genuinely chilling look at how the world would really end.
There’s a strong case for saying Children of Earth should have been the last Torchwood story. In fact, it recently emerged that it had been designed to be the show finale if needed. Captain Jack leaves the planet, disgusted by what he’s had to do, Gwen and Rhys hang up their guns and retire and the world, slowly, painfully, tries to return to normal.
As is always the case, it doesn’t last. Miracle Day, the fourth season, deals with what happens when everyone on Earth simply stops dying. Relocated to America, Jack and Gwen find themselves forced to team up with Rex Matheson and Esther Drummond, a pair of CIA agents who have their own reasons for being invested in wanting to know the reason behind The Miracle. Esther is desperate to protect her sister, who is cracking under the horrific realisation that soon, diseases will be everywhere and whilst no one can die, everyone can suffer whilst Rex may already be dead. A horrific car accident leaves him with an impossible chest wound that, whilst it’s healing, may yet kill him. That level of finality, for a man like Rex Matheson, is not acceptable and The Men Who Sold The World, Guy Adams’ latest Torchwood novel, explores exactly what sort of man Rex Matheson is.
The novel revolves around a shipment of alien tech, sold by the cash-strapped UK government to America. A series of interludes follow one particular weapon from the point Torchwood recover it, from a dying alien in a Cardiff chip shop, through its discovery in the remains of Torchwood’s HQ, the Hub, to the point where the Deputy Prime Minister signs off on the sale. At no point does anyone, even the Torchwood staff, realise what the weapon is and Adams neatly uses this ‘for wont of a nail’ approach to explore how something that is semi sentient, and can alter reality, can end up in the hands of a quiet, well trained mad man. This is the sort of singularity that Torchwood excels at, how a single piece of equipment can change everything and everyone around it, and Adams has huge fun exploring the weapons’ uses, especially in the closing pages of the novel.
However, Adams truly excels at the unpleasant and gets plenty of opportunity to explore that here. Rex, in disgrace following an ethical act on a dubious mission, is sent to Cuba to retrieve the weapons and is far from happy about it. He’s a pitbull, a relentless bulldozer of a man who knows how to do exactly two things; work and sleep so he’s rested enough to work harder. Adams neatly builds on the way Rex and Esther interact and is brave enough to make Rex a profoundly unpleasant character in several ways. Esther is an asset, one who is useful and nothing more, one who can always be pushed, always be driven. Rex doesn’t thank her, doesn’t treat her as an equal and yet, at the same time, relies on her. He’s not sexist, or at the very least not chauvinist and Adams makes it quite clear he’d be as unpleasant, if not more, to a male colleague. It’s just that Esther has the information Rex needs, and she never quite gets it to him fast enough.
For all this though, Rex is quietly an ethical man, if not a good one. He’s placed in harm’s way because he refuses to sit back and let an innocent get hurt for the good of an operation and this core of decency, this refusal to let people be exploited keeps turning up. Rex isn’t a great man, but he is a good one and there are several moments where he refuses to take the easy way out. He decides to interrogate a suspect only as an act of last resort, makes sure an accidentally stolen pair of sunglasses are paid for and works within the rules, a lot of the time, even when he doesn’t have to. It saves his life more than once in the novel, too.
Pitted against Rex are a CIA Black Ops unit led by a man who is overly fond of violence. Where Rex uses it as a tool, Gleeson uses it as a utensil, communicating through the constant implied threat of betrayal, of murder, to keep his men in line. Again, Adams uses an interlude to explore why Gleeson is like this and the end result is a character who whilst far from sympathetic, is much more nuanced than many villains. This in turn makes his escalating acts of brutality all the more shocking, you can understand why Gleeson is acting like he is, you can understand his reasoning and you can see the holes in it exactly the way he can’t. Sheaffer, the member of the unit who has a crisis of consicence, is equally well realised and he and Rex made a spectacularly grumpy double act. Crucially, Adams’ nails the characters’ voices throughout, with these exchanges in particular very easy to hear in Mekhi Phifer’s grandstanding, flamboyantly snippy delivery.
It’s Mr Wynter though, who will stay with you. Mr Wynter is old, polite, well spoken and is the man who the people who really run the world call when something needs cleaning up. He’s George Smiley with added brutality, a softly spoken old spook who enjoys nothing more than peace, quiet and killing people who stop him enjoying life. He’s a monster in a nice suit, a gentle old man who uses his appearance and physicality as a lockpick the same way Rex uses his like a cosh. Mr Wynter spends much of the novel in the background, quietly observing the chaos Rex and Sheaffer cause but despite this, his scenes remain some of the strongest in the book. His scenes with the real rulers of the world are abstract, almost minimalist discussions of how to deal with the Gleeson problem are delicate, circuitous and filled with menace. Mr Wynter’s eventual solution to the problem is equally menacing, giving Adams a chance to flex his narrative muscles and, interestingly, giving Rex an opportunity to both be the hero and slightly sidelined, all at once. Mr Wynter walks quietly through The Men Who Sold The World but his footsteps echo long after the book has finished and, I suspect, Adams may not quite be done with him.
The Men Who Sold The World is a pared back, bunched fist of a book that hits hard and keeps doing it. Smart, funny, brutal and tightly controlled it’s a perfect example of how to do a tie in book that expands on its core material rather than simply aping it. The story of the quiet, anonymous men who run the world and a loud, obvious man who opposes them, The Men Who Sold The World is essential for anyone who’s following Miracle Day or anyone who wants to get a different perspective on Torchwood’s newest, grumpiest leading man.
(The Men Who Sold The World is released on the 18th of August, 2011)