The Jennifer Morgue: Ian Fleming meets H.P. Lovecraft

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross science fiction book reviewsThe Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

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 Hooper


The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross science fiction book reviewsKat 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 even worried when I caught what I thought was a mistake — Bob orders a martini and gets one made with gin. It turns out that was not a mistake, it was a plot element. Very clever, Mr. Stross.

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.

~Marion Deeds

Published in 2006. Bob Howard—a T-shirt–wearing computer geek and field agent for the super-secret British government agency The Laundry—must save the world from eldritch horrors, codenamed Jennifer Morgue, in this fast-paced spy thriller. Bob’s current mission is to stop the evil Ellis Billington from achieving world domination, but he must overcome obstacles including the Gravedust device, which permits communication with the dead; destiny-entanglement protocol; banishment weapons; and Ramona Random, a lethal but beautiful agent for the U.S. counterpart to The Laundry. Billington plans to raise the eldritch horror Jennifer Morgue from the vasty deeps, and communicate with a dead warrior for the purpose of ruling the world. Blending physics and applied mathematics with the practice of summoning and demonology, this spy-meets-horror novel will keep sci-fi fans on the edge of their seats. This volume also includes a bonus story, “Pimpf,” featuring agent Bob Howard in the world of virtual gaming, as well as an afterword entitled “The Golden Age of Spying.”

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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5 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    A cross between Fleming and Lovecraft, two of my all-time favorite authors…this book would seem to be right up my alley! Thanks, Kat!

  2. This sounds really fun. I find Stross to be uneven for me, but I would give this one a try.

  3. Undead seagulls? You have piqued my interest.

  4. Hans Smedbol /

    of course i loved it…i’ve read it something like three or four times now…

    every year when Charlie Stross puts out a new Laundry Files novel, i end up buying it…and then rereading all the old ones, just to set the scene in Bob Howard’s alternate reality (i love that even the character’s alias name, Bob Howard, is an homage to a fantasy author, Robert Howard….

    i haven’t yet managed to get the “Rhesus Chart”, so i won’t read your review just yet on that one….but i am looking forward to reading it.

    and every time i’ve done that, i’ve still found them riveting reading…even though i basically know where it’s going…it’s just fun going along for the ride…although as i said, i don’t really want to read these stories just before bedtime….too good for nightmares….

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