Confession time; I loathe high-octane action novels following rogue CIA/FBI/NSA agents as they untangle a web of government corruption while saving the president’s daughter. Luckily, Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys is nothing like those. Sure, there’s a national conspiracy, shadowy cabals on both sides of the good and bad seesaw, and a rogue agent shooting her way through the danger; but her weapon of choice is an ‘NC Gun’, ‘NC’ of course, standing for Natural Causes.
Ruff has done the action genre a service by weaving some fantastical elements into what would otherwise seem by-the-book spy fare. In fact, with these additions, Bad Monkeys goes from airport read to a mindbender of a good time from the first chapter on.
The enigmatic Jane Charlotte is questioned about a murder she cops to in the name of The Organization. The Organization is an outfit dedicated to improving the world behind the scenes, and her branch takes care of the titular primates. Bad monkeys; too far gone to save, too diabolical to be allowed to go on living. It’s Jane’s job to hunt them down, using a variety of sci-fi tech and weaponry and the Big Brother-style surveillance provided by every eye they could hide a camera in.
Read on an action thriller level, Bad Monkeys would succeed easily. It’s a good thing that Ruff wasn’t satisfied with action thriller status. Jane’s story is picked apart at every turn by a doctor and fed back to her in a more believable and less heroic form. The reader is left to figure out what’s to be believed and who Jane is. The psychological aspect of Bad Monkeys is at least as important as the derring-do, and delivers on the Pynchon-esque promise of the premise.
Bad Monkeys reminds me of another twist-and-turn action story recently out in paperback; The Zero, by Jess Walter. I loved Walter’s book for many of the same reasons I find Ruff’s to be so engaging. It just goes to show; genre need not scare you away if it’s used as a basis for expansion and experimentation. Both action novels succeed brilliantly by melding some sci-fi in with their grit.