Box Nine by Jack O'Connell

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Box Nine by Jack O'Connell

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Category: Crime
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Sam Tyler
Reviewed by Sam Tyler
Summary: Enter the world of Lingo, a new synthetic drug that messes with language and messes with your head, just like this book does.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 352 Date: December 2015
Publisher: No Exit Press
ISBN: 9781843446477

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The wind brushed against the review like a thousand kisses and Sam knew that something out of the ordinary was happening. It wasn't since the long hot summer 1997 that he had the misfortune to read a book that had as much extraneous detail as this. He felt to himself that there was little point in actually getting to the meat of a review, when instead he could witter on about something that had little to do with anything – perhaps this would get a little annoying over 352 pages? Welcome to the world of Jack O'Connell's Box Nine.

Quinsigamond is a town that already has a drugs problem so when the new designer drug, Lingo, hits the streets it's all that Narcotics Detective Lenore needs to real ruin her day. This is a drug that imbues the taker with magnificent language skills with a side order of pleasure, but when it all gets a little too much for them, it usually ends up in death. Can Lenore and her crack (taking?) team of detectives find the source of the outbreak before it is too late?

Experimental fiction is tricky to write and tricky to read. When an author's vision does not quite marry with the reader it can be a painful and difficult challenge to read the book and this is what happened with Box Nine. This book has very light science fiction elements i.e. the drug itself, but for all intents it is a straight slice of crime noir told through the prism of some pretty unlikable characters. Lenore is the main protagonist and she is feisty, but also prone to a little drug taking and cheating on her partner. These are all classic noir tropes, but O'Connell takes things too far by seemingly writing the entire book as if it is on drugs.

The drug of Lingo is all about language and the book of Box Nine seems to want to reflect this somehow. There is a jilted narrative that jumps a little from character to character and the plot itself is continually lost as O'Connell sends the reader down rabbit holes about a person's past that has little to do with the events. It is almost as if the author wants to make the reader a little uncomfortable reading the book; you are being given the drug as you read. I found this method made some parts of book borderline unreadable as pages would pass with seemingly meaningless monologues from the characters. A more enlightened reader may pick up more from these sections, but to me they just smacked of a writer caught up a little too much in his own ideas and not catering to the narrative.

There is also a very odd sense of place about the book. Originally written in the late 90s it feels more like a book from the 70s, but the characters seem think they are in their version of the 90s. Is it a parallel universe? If so, this is not explicitly said and it is yet another layer of confusion for a reader that will already be struggling to get their head around the book. O'Connell would have been better either heightening the sci fi elements of the book, or scrapping them completely. You are left with a jumbled half way house that is unsatisfying for everyone.

For a book that covers similar themes, but in a more coherent way try the excellent Afterparty by Daryl Gregory. Stronger crime noir can be found in The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen.

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